Teacher of the Year: Consider What Children Need Most When Rewriting Our Nation’s Education Law

Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 25 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006.
As federal legislators spend the next few months battling over the provisions of the education law known as No Child Left Behind, I want them to consider this: I am a veteran teacher and I want to be accountable. I want my school to be accountable. Not for some of our students. For all of them. Not for certain grades and select years. For every year and every grade currently required. That means we can’t abandon the federal mandate that requires all states to administer one standardized test every year for all students in grades three to eight and at least once in high school. That means we can’t walk away from teacher evaluation systems that consider, in part, how much students learn in a given year from a given teacher. I recognize that standardized testing has become the go-to scapegoat in public education, for the teachers who complain that it has drained their lessons of creativity and for the parents who are tired of the drill-and-kill prep packets that fill their kids’ notebooks for months before the big state test. But after 20 years teaching elementary students, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t have an issue with once-a-year standardized tests. State tests didn’t limit my creativity, and they didn’t force me to spend months doing test prep. That’s because I taught the standards from day one, and I knew when testing rolled around, my students would be prepared. I know other teachers who would love to abolish state testing, but I don’t get it. How will schools be accountable to the public and to parents if we don’t have the data to demonstrate that we are truly educating students? They have every right to know this. And without annual test results, how would I really know if I were doing my job well? I know this doesn’t make me popular with some of my colleagues, but I bristle at the notion that we get to take credit when our students thrive. However, it’s not our responsibility when our students struggle because something else must be to blame—parents or poverty or underfunded programs. The whole premise of No Child Left Behind was to protect our most vulnerable students, to shine a light on their academic performance so they wouldn’t fall through the cracks. I know schools and teachers experienced this law as stifling and stigmatizing, and in many ways it was, but how do we walk away from a law whose promise has scarcely been met? The legislators who want to rewrite NCLB say this is about curtailing the power of the federal government. I’m no fan of big government, but I think the worst thing we can do right now is go back to the way it used to be—give states a truckload of federal anti-poverty money, hand them the keys and trust them to steer a true path toward an excellent education for all children. I teach in Minnesota, a state with some of the highest learning standards in the country—and one of the worst racial achievement disparities for black and brown children. So frankly, I want the feds to keep a hand on the steering wheel—until states demonstrate they know how to drive achievement, especially in our most challenged schools. Clearly the time has come to fix NCLB, but let’s hope our legislators stop thinking about how to make this easier for the adults who want to move backwards—and instead start thinking about the children who so desperately need to move forward.
Lee-Ann Stephens
Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 25 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. She currently serves as a teacher on special assignment with the St. Louis Park School District in Minnesota. She serves Latino and African American high school students who are enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors classes. She previously served as an adjunct ...

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