By Maggie Taylor
A little over a year ago I left my role as educator and started the grueling and rewarding process of graduate studies. As a student earning a Masters in Education Policy in the heart of Washington, D.C., I shouldn’t have been surprised to be engrossed in K-12 policies and politics in almost every lecture. I was not prepared to take courses entitled “Congressional Budget Making” or “Lobbying for Funding”—but here I am, a year in, and I have learned more than I imagined. As I reflect on my first year as a scholar, I can’t help but think how this knowledge would have changed the way I viewed things as a teacher.
As a former classroom teacher, it was easy for me to bury my head in the sand and ride out every new policy that came down the pipe at the start of each school year. My local, state or national government would create policies or programs that would inevitably trickle down to my classroom. As these things trickled down, I often heard educators say, “This too will pass,” and heard myself echoing these sentiments as I learned this process firsthand. I passively allowed decisions to be made at the local, state and national level and didn’t think my opinion was worth sharing.
What I didn’t realize, however, was how much I could have done to change these policies, and how my voice should have been raised a little louder to be heard. This blog comes to you—educators, administrators, parents, concerned community members—to read into what is happening in Congress now and how we can all work together to make changes that suit the needs of our students.
NCLB’s Influence in My Classroom
Like many districts in the past decade, my district primarily focused on math and reading. Professional Development was created to improve test scores in those two subjects. We took part in themed book studies on reading development and improvement. We purchased new math curriculum to improve student understanding. My district was not the only one—this was reflected in schools across the country.
My district’s focus on math and reading test scores was a reflection of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Each year my students were to perform better and better on math and reading assessments, and each year we dedicated more and more time to these subjects leaving little room for much else. After three years, my students were wound tight with anxiety. The influence NCLB had in my tiny classroom in Kansas was immense.
While I recognized a need for teaching my students respect, integrity, honesty, perseverance, empathy and many more character traits, I had to be creative in the way I embedded this in my curriculum. I wish I had known then that the 11 Principles of Character Education existed. I know in my heart of hearts that my students would have been more successful had we stressed the importance of a well-rounded curriculum rather than putting so much pressure on 11-year-olds to pass an assessment.
ESSA: What to expect
While the new Every Student Succeeds Act eliminates the strict focus on math and reading test scores, it will change the way we educate and there will be unintended consequences. We stand at a crossroads and I believe that we share a collective responsibility (if not obligation) to our youth to understand the nuances of this law.
For me, I believe this impact lies in what districts and schools do with Title IV, Part A of ESSA. This part of ESSA consolidated over 20 programs into one lump area, and schools—specifically Title I schools—will have to pick and choose what programs and services they can continue to support.
Some believe that ESSA is a stronger education act than NCLB, but there is still much that needs to be addressed. For the past few months I have sought to understand specifically how Title IV, Part A will impact character education in our schools. Title IV Part A is aimed to help Title I schools and is intended to:
- Provide all students with access to a well-rounded education,
- Improve school conditions for student learning, and
- Improve the use of technology in order to improve the academic achievement and digital literacy of all students.
Unfortunately, it looks like Title IV Part A (also known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants [SSAEG]) will be vastly underfunded. Originally SSAEG was allocated to receive $1.65 billion dollars for the 2017-2018 school year, but a Senate subcommittee agreed to cut this budget to just $300 million dollars. Today a House panel is considering a spending bill with $1 billion for SSAEG but we fear the eventual budget may be somewhere in between, and nowhere near the authorized $1.65 billion.
This severe underfunding will adversely affect students for future generations. Now there is speculation among researchers and lobbyists that this will become a competitive block grant in which schools must apply. Ultimately a competitive block grant will severely hurt schools that either don’t receive this funding or who do not have the resources to even apply.
How you can help:
- Continue to advocate for full funding for SSAEG so that your local school district won’t have to pick and choose between important programs due to financial constraints. Contact your local congressperson and actively advocate to avoid this. If you are unsure who to contact, you can find out by going to www.house.gov. Once there, type in your zip code in the box on the top right. Your congressperson will be listed on the screen with a mail icon. Click on the mail icon to send your congressperson an email expressing your concern for funding.
- If you have suggestions on how to improve specific aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, you can email your ideas and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Check out #MoreTitleIV on Twitter and Facebook to read letters from other organizations adversely affected by the low funding for SSAEG. Use this hashtag to Tweet at your local congressperson.
- Download the ESSA advocacy guide I created to learn more about ESSA and ways you can advocate for all students.
As Congress continues to iron out the ambiguities on the parameters of ESSA, specifically regarding Title IV funding, Character.org will continue to keep you updated. Become a member of Character.org and receive monthly emails from our advocates to be on the cusp on the latest news on ESSA.
Maggie is the Development/Advocacy Intern at Character.org and is a full time graduate student at the George Washington University.