HSTA and educational transformation under ESSA

by Amy Perruso and Catherine Caine

New federal legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and creating important space for educational change at the state level. This legislation gives power back to state policy makers, so that our governor, legislators, and Board of Education will be ultimately responsible for the policies that shape Hawaii public schools.  Most important, the language of ESSA requires that teachers like us are at the table. We are the experts at working with students and helping them reach their potential. We need to be ready to lead implementation efforts in our communities so students have access to the public schools they deserve. As active members of HSTA, we want to use this opportunity to share teacher perspective on some specific legal and policy possibilities within ESSA for teachers and teaching, based on input we have received from teachers thus far.

Professional Respect and Empowerment

Under ESSA, we are no longer required by federal law to link teacher evaluation to any measure of “student growth.” We have already convinced our Board of Education to amend BOE Policy 203.4, delinking student test scores and teacher evaluation, but SLOs, under the revised EES system still make up 50 percent of the teacher evaluation. This is not required under federal law. Teachers benefit only from teacher evaluations that are useful and supportive. ESSA gives state DOE leaders the power to work with the teachers’ union to develop an evaluation system based on teacher-driven professional development plans, meaningful and supportive observation processes and opportunity for reflection and professional growth. This will require a shift away from fear-based management to a culture of kuleana, or trust-based responsibility.

  Our students deserve excellent teachers. They deserve teachers who have completed a teacher preparation program and are certified and licensed to teach, have demonstrated content knowledge in their subject area(s) and have demonstrated teaching skills, such as through a teacher performance assessment, or another measure determined by the state. And they should, as ESSA makes both clear and possible, have access to professional development designed not for the purposes of accountability but for the purpose of helping teachers expand their capacities, professional development that meets professional standards established by teachers themselves.

We are faced with a teacher shortage that has been aggravated to the point of crisis under NCLB. We currently lose more than 50 percent of our teachers every five years, and the ways in which policy-makers have chosen to address the problem through stopgap measures has only exacerbated the problem. Short-sighted responses to the teacher shortage crisis have led to structural reliance on inexperienced, temporary, unlicensed and uncertified teachers.  Due to the teacher shortage crisis, tens of thousands of our keiki will not have a teacher this school year. These students may have an adult body in the room, but they will not have a teacher. This is devastating for our students, our current teachers and for our schools. Recent research demonstrates that most teachers do not become fully effective until their sixth or seventh year. We have been advocating that the governor’s task force develop a long-term vision to address this issue. Measures that flow from such a vision include not only increased pay, respect, support and autonomy for teachers, but also policies that support our best and brightest young people to become teachers as we “grow our own.” Such measures will also support increased diversity in the teacher workforce, as well as increased family and community stability.

Less Testing and More Learning

If we are fostering education with vision, with a eye to cultivating educational practices that support curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, we need to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by ESSA to move towards a system with less testing and more learning. More than 90 percent of teachers responding agree that Hawaii should look into changes in SBAC testing. We are advocating that the state replace SBA at the high school level with SAT, ACT, or other nationally recognized assessment – even better, we should go back to developing our own assessments.  More broadly and ambitiously,  we are also advocating that the state pilot a program for local authentic assessments driven by teaching and learning. About 65 percent of teachers think that, through ESSA, the HIDOE should begin to look into the use of authentic, portfolio, or competency assessments in place of SBA tests, which is absolutely amazing considering how much work we have been forced to do in the past five to six years to narrow our work with students to improve scores on these standardized tests.

The current accountability system is not working. Almost 90 percent of teachers responding agree that Hawaii should look into changes in the Strive HI school accountability system. About 80 percent of teachers responding feel that we should change direction from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and state flex waivers, in large part because of the recent overemphasis on standardized testing. ESSA allows for caps on school time dedicated to test-taking, so we suggest a “low cap,” which would dramatically limit the amount to time students spend taking standardized tests. About 75 percent of teachers surveyed think that, through ESSA, the HIDOE should reduce the amount of time required for students to take the annual state test or the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

  In the move from test-based accountability to trust-based responsibility, and again in line with new federal law, we are also advocating for the long-term development of our own college and career ready standards, so that we can begin moving away from federally imposed standards and mandated curricula, set our own goals and targets, and develop an “accountability plan” rooted in the needs of OUR students. About 70 percent of teachers surveyed think that, through ESSA, the HIDOE should consider changes in the Common Core Standards (again, remarkable considering how much work teachers have been required to do in the federally coerced move to CCSS). And 96 percent of teachers think that, through ESSA, the HIDOE should consider moving away from a single state curriculum (ELA).

Public Schools as Sites of Democratic Decision-Making

Teachers in Hawaii agree with NEA that decision-making “should be shifted to those who know the students” while increasing attention to equity in a structurally unjust system. About 88 percent of Hawaii teachers stated said that, “The students at my school would benefit if my school community has more control over the educational decisions that affect our students.” Teachers generally saw strengthening of school-community based management systems as the key to democratic decision-making at school-sites. Only 25 percent of teachers agreed to the statement that, “My school community currently has sufficient control over the curriculum decisions that directly affect our students.”

With the support offered under ESSA for additional training not only for teachers but also for school leaders and administrators, we think it is critically important to take this opportunity to cultivate supportive, collaborative, transparent and innovative leadership of Hawaii’s public schools. About 96 percent of teachers agreed that, “An essential piece of a school empowerment framework is that the school principal is collaborative, transparent, adaptive, and skilled in building relationships, trust, and a supportive culture for teaching and learning.” To support the principals in their efforts to become more connected with the community and less driven by test scores, more than 90 percent of our teachers think that the use of test scores should be delinked from the principals’ evaluation.

Public Schools as Sites for Social Justice

A basic, shared premise of the teachers who have been involved in the work around ESSA is that all children, not just those in private schools or charter schools, should have consistent access to rich, exciting, interesting educational experiences. Educational equity can only be realized when we begin to address the sources of inequity, including poverty and other circumstances over which children have no control. There is a widening gap between the very wealthy and the impoverished in Hawaii, with public schools now primarily serving high-needs students (including high poverty, special needs and English language learners). Over 50 percent of our public school students have needs that our schools are not currently designed to meet. We want full-service community schools, with wraparound attention for those young people. Public schools should be the safe, welcoming and nurturing place for all of our children, especially the ones who need us the most, not a site they experience as a source of humiliation, fear and punishment. We need to address inequities such as the discriminatory application of discipline policies (which contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline”), criminally inadequate funding for public schools, and the racial and socioeconomic segregation evident in our education system.

(Amy Perruso, a social studies teacher at Mililani High School, is the secretary-treasurer of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Catherine Caine, a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary, was the state’s teacher of the year last year. They serve as the two teacher members of Gov. David Ige’s ESSA task force.)