by NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer
to the Joint Committee on Public Schools

Good morning, my name is Wendell Steinhauer. I am a high school math teacher, and I also serve as the President of the 200,000 member New Jersey Education Association.

We believe the Every Student Succeeds Act—or ESSA—offers opportunity. Opportunity for our educators, teachers and students. We see this law as a chance for our state to reverse the many harmful policies of No Child Left Behind. The past fourteen years have been marred by an obsession with a “test and punish” mentality in our schools, and ESSA creates space to fix the broken policies of the past. But, if we want to fix broken policies of the past, all stakeholders must be willing to work together towards changes that benefit all students.

And it is with stakeholder engagement where ESSA is revolutionary.  For the first time, federal education policy requires meaningful and sustained involvement of all stakeholders—from parents, to community leaders, to educators—in shaping our public education system. This requirement of stakeholder engagement extends from the school district to the state-level. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the entire community to create a public education system representing our shared values.

One of those shared values is to de-emphasize the oversized role standardized testing plays in our schools. The obsession with high stakes, standardized testing has to stop. Simply put: the impact of these tests on schools is toxic. ESSA specifically calls for states to require multiple measures—a wide variety of measures—as indicators for school success. ESSA brings a de-escalation of the stakes tied to statewide standardized testing, and we hope to see new accountability measures that won’t yield the same results we have come to expect.

Our teacher’s don’t hate tests, they invented them! But, using state-level standardized test at the current rate hurts our classrooms and negatively impacts student learning. ESSA calls for a de-emphasis on these assessments, and we believe New Jersey should take this opportunity to go beyond mere test scores and follow a spirit consistent with federal law.

In fact: when ESSA was signed into law, it prohibited the federal government from requiring states to use standardized assessments for teacher evaluation. We know that using testing for teacher evaluation is inaccurate and ineffective. We must not let this opportunity pass; we must stop using standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness.

When it comes to school accountability measures, it’s critical that New Jersey select indicators that will not yield the same results we have seen year after year. It’s our obligation to look at measures that will help our most needy schools and children, not hurt them. That’s why, we are proposing what we call a “student success index” to be chosen as our additional indicator to measure school success.

With the adoption of ESSA, we believe our students have the chance to feel meaningful changes in their everyday lives. A “student success index” would place an emphasis on what matters to students. It would take into account critical factors that we know are tied to student success. We would look at access to health services, access to afterschool support programs, class size, and other factors that yield results. A student success index, paired with other indicators required under ESSA to measure school effectiveness, would ensure that districts across the state focus on multiple elements of a student’s experience.

No Child Left Behind required districts to care about one thing: test scores. When a district cares solely about performance on tests, so many factors that make up a child’s school day become lost.  ESSA means—and a Student Success Index would ensure—that our districts are actively working to improve those elements that make our schools so successful.

Despite our best efforts to work with all districts, it’s a simple fact that we will have some districts that will need additional support. Instead of the discredited one-size-fits-all policies of No Child Left Behind, ESSA allows space for a sustainable, community-driven remedy for schools and districts that need more support.  New Jersey must take advantage of this new approach, and we support Community Schools.

Community schools are schools that are unique to each community of the schools they serve. They are not a one-size-fits-all approach to school improvement; they are not a simple addition of “wrap-around services” to schools. Community Schools invite community leaders to work with educators and students to better the community together. They are research-based, and  have proven to help schools across the country.

Most importantly, Community Schools don’t dismantle the public schools. We believe that every child has the right to go to a school that will serve them in the neighborhood in which they live. Community Schools work to fix schools with various problems by leveraging the knowledge and the passions of the parents and the community. Under ESSA, when our schools need help, Community Schools are the remedy New Jersey should pursue.

ESSA offers opportunity to bring about the changes we always hoped we would see in our schools. I look forward to working with you to make these changes come to fruition.

Thank you.

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