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Published in Print: May 9, 2007, as Teachers of the Year Call for Changes to NCLB Law

Teachers of the Year Call for Changes to NCLB Law

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America’s top teachers are demanding a seat at the table when Congress deliberates the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fifty of the nation’s 56 state teachers of the year for 2007 have come up with a list of 10 changes they would like to see in the law, which is due for reauthorization this year.

Many of the changes they are seeking—recasting the definition of a “highly qualified” teacher and using growth models that measure school progress based on the improvement each student makes over the course of the year, among them—are similar to the wish lists put out by the two national teachers’ unions for the NCLB reauthorization.

Critics of the law have often faulted it for lacking teacher input. When a bipartisan Congress passed the measure in 2001, it had few fingerprints of the unions, which represent a majority of public school teachers.

In past months, as talk about the reauthorization has intensified, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have vowed to make their voices heard this time around.

The teachers of the year say they commend the work the unions are doing. But the law, which has a number of deficiencies, could benefit from the experienced voices of the teachers chosen as the best in their states, said Madaline Fennell, the Nebraska teacher of the year.

Ms. Fennell said there is a long, sometimes rocky, history between the unions and Congress. “Sometimes you need a new voice at the table. ... We are 50 people with no history, and we want to bring a new perspective to the debate,” she said at a press conference here April 27.

The Teacher of the Year competition is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, but the teachers said they are acting entirely on their own on the NCLB recommendations.

Recasting Effectiveness

Some education experts say the teachers of the year and their recommendations do not necessarily represent teachers across the country and their views on the No Child Left Behind Act.

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Washington-based research and advocacy group Education Trust, which has generally supported NCLB provisions, pointed to a MetLife Survey from October that found teacher satisfaction at a 20-year high.

Even though the survey did not specifically look at teacher satisfaction with the NCLB law, Ms. Wilkins said the fact that teachers are the happiest they have been in a long time indicates there is not a widespread dissatisfaction with its effects.

Also, there appears to be little that’s new and different in the recommendations from what the unions have been demanding, she said. “They say there’s a need for a new voice,” Ms. Wilkins said, “but the recommendations are the echo of an old tune.”

One central demand the teachers of the year made is that instead of focusing on educators having the proper certification to enter a classroom, as the law now requires, it also should ensure that they receive ongoing professional development. The teachers also want teacher effectiveness to be based on improved student achievement.

In addition, the teachers are calling for all penalties against schools failing by NCLB standards to be replaced with such measures as goal-setting, encouragement and monitoring of individual student growth, and professional development and teacher support; a requirement that administrators become instructional leaders who can provide regular feedback to teachers; language that addresses the needs of students with disabilities, such as state assessment systems that track the academic growth of individual students; and the use of multiple methods of assessment that evaluate a student’s progress over the entire year.

“Nearly all rewards and punishments focus on how many students are testing at the proficient level. But if we judge progress over the entire year, we create incentives for the best teachers to take on low-performing schools,” said Justin Minkel, the teacher of the year from Arkansas.

Many of the teachers have tales of personal struggles with the law. Isabel Rodriguez, the teacher of the year from Puerto Rico, said the requirement for all students to read English proficiently had made it difficult for her high school to make adequate yearly progress, the law’s key measure of schools’ performance on student achievement.

“It is very hard because English is not our official language,” she said. She added that a majority of Puerto Rico’s students come from low-income homes, and that parents’ involvement in their children’s education is lacking.

Lobbying Plans

Among their next steps, the teachers plan to lobby policymakers both at the state and congressional levels.

Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, said that he would look over the recommendations. The senator’s staff has also met with the teacher of the year from Massachusetts, she added.

At least one of the unions says that far from being offended that the teachers are seeking an individual voice, it welcomes their joining the conversation.

In a statement, Edward J. McElroy, the president of the AFT, called the recommendations “thoughtful, constructive, and based on teachers’ experiences.”

The NEA didn’t respond.

Vol. 26, Issue 36, Pages 5,12

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