AFT members tell Congress what we need in ESEA

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The voice of educators was delivered with power and presence to the new Congress when two New York City teachers and AFT members testified Jan. 21 at one of its first hearings focused on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Among the hearing's witnesses were Steve Lazar, an 11th-grade history and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School, and Jia Lee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the Earth School.

Teachers Steve Lazar and Jia LeeLazar warned that high-stakes, test-driven sanctions under the current law, commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act, were corrupting good practice in the classroom. "I come as a proud National Board Certified public high school teacher," he said. "I'm also embarrassed to say I was a teacher who, every May until last, would apologize to my students. I would tell them, 'I have done my best job to be an excellent teacher for you up till now, but for the last month of school, I am going to turn into a bad teacher to properly prepare you to write stock, formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts' " to be successful on state exams.

Lazar said he was compelled to make that apology in large part because the current federal law was feeding the pressure to test every kid, every year and forcing teachers like him "to value three hours of testing over a year of learning."

The next iteration of ESEA must end those pressures, he said, by looking closely at incorporating reforms like "grade-span testing for elementary and middle school, as we already do in high school." Even better, he suggested, would be a law that goes "a step further" and uses the representational sampling technique employed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), "universally considered to be the 'gold standard' of educational assessment in the United States."

These changes make a big difference, and Lazar has seen it at work in Harvest Collegiate High School, part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. This group of 48 schools now offers an alternative model, one where "high-stakes assessments are not an on-demand test," but a college-level performance-based assessment focused on having "students complete real and authentic disciplinary work, giving them a significant advantage over others once they enter college."

Lazar told the Senate panel that his remarks were not offered as a screed against all tests and accountability in any form. Nor should they be taken as a call to end what he called "important features that should not be abandoned" from the current law—particularly its requirement for disaggregation of student data. That element "has put a much-needed spotlight on how the education of American youth is negatively affected by economic and social inequality" and "that is why I believe that a stance that is opposed to any ESEA requirement for student assessment is misguided."

But there is no reason that the 114th Congress cannot keep this element while moving the climate on testing, accountability and performance closer to where Harvest Collegiate is today—a school where Lazar does not feel compelled to offer that test-driven apology to students at the end of every school year. "I support the position of my union, the AFT, that in reauthorizing ESEA, Congress should remove the high stakes from mandated tests, limit the number of tests used for accountability purposes, and allow schools to use more sophisticated and useful assessment tools such as performance assessments," he said.

"Models like the consortium need to be able to exist, and expand, within any reauthorized ESEA bill."

[Mike Rose/AFT photo]