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Op-Ed: ESSA Offers Opportunity for Schools to Change Course

Stakeholder involvement in the requisite re-imagining and re-inventing – by educators and parents alike – is critical if ESSA is to reach its full potential

Wendell Steinhauer
Wendell Steinhauer

With the anticipation and excitement of the new school year upon us, parents and educators have a unique opportunity to participate in shaping public education in New Jersey. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law passed late last year to replace the notorious No Child Left Behind (NCLB), critical decisions about our schools have been returned to the state and local districts. With that increased control comes a federal requirement to engage education stakeholders in the process of creating state and local plans.

In short, ESSA means opportunity.

Over the next few months, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) is required to develop a new plan for education in New Jersey to submit to the federal government. ESSA gives us – educators and parents – the power to help shape education policy in New Jersey. We must speak up to ensure that the NJDOE focuses on what is best for children. Together we can create the schools every New Jersey student deserves by building on our successes and changing course where that is called for. We have a seat at the table, so let’s use it well.

Stakeholder involvement in the conversation – by educators and parents alike – is critical if ESSA is to reach its full potential. Meaningful involvement requires investment. It requires coming together to work toward a common goal. It requires give and take. We must commit to thinking critically about the factors affecting how children learn and the changes we would like to achieve. Even when we disagree we can learn from one another and we can make progress together.

With the spirit of the law in mind, the NJDOE has agreed to hold at least four regional meetings later this fall to engage in conversations with educators, parents and community members about the realities of our schools and the impact that past federal policies have had on our classrooms. These meetings won’t simply be “listening and learning sessions.” Rather, they will provide an opportunity for educators and parents to talk with the NJDOE about the realities of our classrooms. With authentic stakeholder involvement lined up, it’s our job to show up prepared and ready to work.

Regardless of the educational issue you are passionate about, ESSA creates space for progress. The law permits progressive changes around the issues as critical as testing, school funding, school accountability, and sustained stakeholder involvement.

ESSA seeks to lower the stakes attached to state-level standardized tests. It eliminates NCLB’s notorious Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which called for a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning. It calls for less time to be spent on testing and test prep and requires only one test to be administered in high school. ESSA does not require students take a high school exit exam. In other words, the law takes a productive step toward providing the educational experiences students need, not the obsessive testing that some politicians want.

Education advocates in New Jersey should leap at the opportunity to participate. While the nation as a whole is moving to place less emphasis on high-stakes tests, our state hasn’t yet followed suit. In fact, we are moving in the opposite direction. Right now in New Jersey, high school students will take as many as three high-stakes tests before they graduate. Make no mistake: this adherence to a test-and-punish mentality hurts students. ESSA offers hope and a potential reprieve by offering parents and community members an opportunity to advocate for change.

ESSA offers an opportunity to begin creating the schools we want our children to experience. We can transform schools to support those who live in our communities and to enrich the communities themselves. With community schools and with real conversation, we can begin to transition into a space of growth and development.

We must make our voices heard. We must not accept “we have to do it this way” as an answer. ESSA provides an opportunity to achieve the changes we have long envisioned in our schools. It’s my goal to fight for every educator and parent who wants to affect change, who wants power in the choices that impact their children, and who is ready to work for it. Together, we will build the schools the children in our communities deserve.

Wendell Steinhauer is president of the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association.

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