On June 2nd, four of America's best teachers spoke on Capitol Hill to policymakers and educational experts about the most crucial improvements needed in the K-12 education system and the importance of the federal government's role in education. The teachers, known as Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows, are elementary, middle, and high school teachers who were selected by the Department of Energy to spend a year with Washington policymaking bodies. Their experiences with agencies such as the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and congressional offices, combined with their classroom experience, make them uniquely situated to offer perspective on national educational policies.
The panel, hosted by the Wilson Center on the Hill program and the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy, included Karen Stiner, a middle school math teacher from Oregon and a two-year Einstein Fellow; Ed Potosnak, a high school chemistry teacher from New Jersey; Jennifer Thompson, an elementary school math and science teacher from Juneau, Alaska; and Steve Scannell, a high school science teacher from Oregon. As teachers of STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes, they gave particular attention to the challenges that schools and the government face in strengthening STEM subjects and ensuring that students receive a modern, world-class education.
Stiner began the discussion, emphasizing the importance of the federal government's role in education and the strong positive effect that better coordination between government agencies could have in the schools. She pointed out that students are asked to embody 21st century skills: to work together, to collaborate, to problem solve, and to think critically in order to solve the problems of the future. However, the same is not asked of the federal government: "we don't ask our agencies to collaborate often enough" Potosnak agreed, explaining that the federal government spends about $3 billion dollars each year on STEM education programs, but that money is disbursed through more than twelve different agencies that lack any unified direction or vision.
In response to this lack of collaboration, the Fellows referred to a new bill, H.R.1709: the STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009, which is currently under consideration in Congress. If passed, the bill will establish a committee under the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education activities and programs of all federal agencies.
The Einstein Fellows expressed their praise and support for the bill as a necessary step towards providing students with the 21st century skills they need. Stiner emphasized that it will encourage institutions of higher education to be more involved with K-12 programs. Potosnak, who worked on an early version of the bill, added that it will leverage federal programs to help schools become more efficient and give unified direction to the many agencies already working on STEM education.
Stronger collaboration between the government and the schools and teachers will also be essential, Thompson said. She explained that a lot of federal programs, such as the Einstein Fellowship Program, were established to support teachers, but that most teachers are not aware of them. Stiner added that teachers also tend to be unaware of best practices: "we need to get the research that is happening in these agencies to the classroom, to the teachers."
Ultimately, better communication between all stakeholders - federal agencies, universities, businesses, states, and teachers - could help to develop a much-needed support system for teachers. Potosnak suggested that the federal government subsidize states to put together consortiums of local businesses, academic institutions, and teacher training programs to work on research and education planning. Especially in the inner-city, teachers are in desperate need of support, explained Stiner. Teachers need more resources, technology, and time in the day to work together and collaborate.
Thompson and Potosnak added that support for all teachers of younger elementary-aged children is also particularly important. Little time is made for science in elementary schools, often because the teachers feel uncomfortable with the subject or are not confident in their ability to relay it to their students in an effective way. Teachers need more support and encouragement through the implementation of additional training or through the help of science coaches.
Scannell mentioned that teachers everywhere are overworked. Grading is a major task: even if a teacher were to spend only one minute on each assignment, that often adds three hours to an 8-hour teaching day, a workload that is "not sustainable." He suggested that the federal government could get involved by passing a law to require that schools give teachers one or two hours of preparatory time each day.
According to Stiner, added support for educators is crucial, as most teachers leaving the profession do so because of poor working conditions. "Paying teachers more money is not going to be the answer," she said.
The panel then weighed in on the future of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which could be reauthorized by Congress this year. Stiner explained that while the intent of NCLB – assessing how our schools are doing - is good, improvements should be made in its implementation. Scannell emphasized the "truly baffling" nature of comparing students from this year to those of the previous year and suggested that we move to a 'growth model' to measure each student's learning over time. Potosnak added that we should use assessments with multiple indicators to evaluate schools – including what the schools provide for their teachers and students. And, tests should include skills that we hope students will be gaining in the 21st century: collaboration, problem-solving, and civics.
As assessment methods are improved, they should also be expanded to test students in all subject areas, the Fellows asserted. Currently, standardized testing emphasizes language arts and math over subjects such as social studies and science, creating an uneven balance in schools' teaching priorities. "It pits teacher against teacher" in a struggle for both school resources and student time, explained Stiner.
Most importantly, the panel felt the need to change NCLB from a punitive system to a supportive one. Potosnak pointed out that improvements in performance come from increased support rather than the added stress of being punished, which can make the teachers feel undervalued.
Ultimately, the Fellows stressed that the federal government can and should take a larger role in education and can significantly shape the direction our schools take in bringing students' knowledge into the 21st century. Executive agencies should focus on increasing their coordination and their direct communication with schools and teachers. Congress should take advantage of its opportunity to improve both educational assessment and coordination through the implementation of the STEM Education Coordination Act and the reauthorization of an improved No Child Left Behind Act.
A more integrated American education system with greater support for teachers is long overdue, emphasized the Fellows. Kent Hughes, moderator of the discussion, stressed the need for more discussion and action in education policy, saying, "if we don't get education right, we won't be the country that we want to be and we won't be the leader that much of the world expects us to be."
Drafted by R. Brant Howell, STAGE Program
Kent H. Hughes, Director, STAGE Program