Academic Progress in Today’s World: What Students Need
As a first-grade teacher in Chicago, I believe that every brain should have the opportunity to learn. I am confident that my colleagues, my students, and their parents believe the same. When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act with bipartisan support in 2015, I believed it would mean real progress toward providing that opportunity to every child. And I hoped ESSA would be an educational milestone, not only by collecting meaningful data, but by using that data to hold schools accountable to meet the needs of historically underserved students like the ones in my classroom.
But right now, the Trump administration’s reluctance to enforce these accountability measures puts urban schools like mine at risk of losing a valuable tool to support students grappling with the effects of poverty, homelessness, and violence in their communities. Congress designed ESSA explicitly to take responsibility for protecting the civil rights of all students, which is why we must defend it against attempts to undermine components critical to doing so. Strong accountability measures make it possible to identify and address the huge gaps in opportunity that low-income students and students of color face in our country.
I have had the privilege of teaching many of these students, including one whom I’ll call Denise. Denise is a smart, conscientious, and hard-working fifth-grader who happens to live in an unsafe area in Chicago. Instead of rushing home after the final bell, Denise chooses to stay at school and participate in some of her favorite enrichment activities: Ladies in Training, which leads girls in service learning, and Teen Business Club, which teaches students how to develop skills in decision-making and promoting their ideas.
My school receives federal funds based on data that track our students’ needs and their progress, and my school uses those data to create and sustain programs that support students like Denise and help keep them on track. Without data tracking where student need is the greatest and which programs are most successful in bridging the gap, I fear that states will not be able to allocate their already-limited resources efficiently. In this scenario, it is students like Denise who will be disproportionately affected, potentially losing access to safe after-school activities and other supplemental programs (such as Climb to Safety, a curriculum we use that teaches financial literacy skills, or Mindful Practices, a program where we use mindfulness and social-emotional learning to create a more equitable learning environment).
As it is, my city’s schools are already severely underfunded. I deeply fear what my school might become if we allow unaccountable state and local leaders to take Title I funds designated for high-poverty students to plug funding holes elsewhere. Chicago Public Schools is broke because nobody held local leaders accountable, which is why we need accountability in ESSA.
Although I’m far from being a DC insider, I can tell you what it would mean to implement ESSA next year without the necessary guardrails that help level the playing field for my students. I live in a state with a vast gap between the “haves” and “have nots” and where education opportunities are often dependent on zip code. Without a strong accountability model in place, underrepresented students like Denise will be invisible and ignored. Our state and schools need the ability to track how all our students are doing so we know how to target our finite resources.
Some education advocates believe that eliminating the ESSA regulations provides states with greater flexibility to apply the law in a way that works best for their specific needs. But the unfortunate reality is that legislators often put politics ahead of need. Giving politicians excessive leeway allows them to leave underserved communities like mine and Denise’s behind. So I call on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to enforce the accountability and equity provisions in ESSA. And I call on my fellow teachers to be active and get involved in developing your own state’s ESSA plan.
President Lyndon Johnson, a former teacher himself, originally passed the precursor to ESSA as a major initiative in the War on Poverty. While no teacher believes that ESSA alone can eliminate poverty, it can help give every student that chance to learn they deserve.
DeJernet Farder is a first-grade teacher in East Garfield Park in Chicago and a member of Educators for Excellence–Chicago.
Photo credit: Wikimedia