As a current Kent D. Williamson Policy Fellow at NCTE, I have had rewarding opportunities to converse about implementing policy-based instructional decisions as a classroom teacher. While enjoying the daily teaching interaction with my fantastic sixth- and seventh-graders, I have witnessed how the macro level of policy decisions can impact my students’ learning as well as ELA curriculum choices.
I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and along the way, I have experienced major transitions from the No Child Left Behind policy to Raise to the Top initiatives. Often, we are so caught up in our daily teaching responsibilities that we become complacent to the macro level of policy transitions in our own classrooms. For this reason, my relentless pursuit of knowledge and research in education policy has led me to specialize in Diversity and Equity at the University of Illinois while assuming my teaching responsibilities.
Just to provide a brief scope of my personal background and why I have become so interested in examining the various educational issues through the policy lens, I would like to identify myself as a “third-culture” kid. I was born in South Korea and finished my elementary school years while experiencing a heavily monitored nationalized curriculum, which involved monthly high stakes tests and academic competitiveness.
Then with my father’s pursuit of a Ph.D in Great Britain, we migrated to the UK, where I spent four years specializing in humanities courses, to pass the standardized testing system known as GCSE and A-Levels. Upon finishing high school, I was able to come to the US with my family, and here I am, dedicating my life to what I consider as one of the noblest professions: teaching.
I hope you can see how my various cultural experiences have inspired me to grow my passion and dedicate myself as a teacher and a researcher to examine US education policies from theoretical concepts to practical teaching perspectives.
Federal, state, and district policies affect everything from my daily teaching decisions to best implement instructional practices for my students’ learning to curriculum designs that align with the Common Core State Standards. Because of this, we as teachers must be provided with opportunities to empower ourselves and to voice our beliefs as practitioners.
We are the ones delivering instruction, touching each and every student’s passion for learning, and driving our education system.
So as a policy fellow, I would like to ask for the federal and state level policymakers to make the space to listen to classroom teachers’ voices, invite them to share insights and experiences, and use what they learn from listening to our voices when drafting educational policies.
When teachers’ voices are heard, the macro-level policy decisions can positively impact the micro-level classroom climate.
It’s hard to make our voices heard when we speak as individuals. But staying connected to a national organization like NCTE gives us firsthand access to the latest thinking in our field, and the backing of a community of expertise that’s bigger than our own.
For example, NCTE has many well-researched position statements that do things like define best teaching practices and expert voices to support English teachers’ daily decisions to promote diversity and inclusion in our teaching. I recently used the statement on Preparing Teachers with Knowledge of Children’s and Young Adult Literature to establish a new novel study: I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai’s memoir.
At the time of introducing this book as a formal unit study, my colleague and I discussed why our school community needed to embrace multicultural literacy. We noted that our school could support “a future of equality for all youth by engaging students with diverse books, which offer readers what scholar Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) calls windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” Pointing to this statement aided in the school’s decision to implement the novel unit study with Malala Yousafzai’s story.
This is one of many examples of how a statement from a national organization can empower each English teacher’s daily teaching practices and pedagogical decisions.
It’s important to celebrate local victories like this because my own educational journey has shown me that policy decisions at the state and federal level are usually not informed by what we know and understand in real classrooms.
For example, we know that students learn better in situations where they see their diverse identities reflected back in the curriculum. However, many state and local curricula are filled with classics because those most closely resemble what students are assessed with on standardized tests. In my own experience, the annual PARCC testing uses Eurocentric curriculum-based questions and passages that disadvantage students from ELL or other diverse learning backgrounds.
But these assessments drive a lot in our educational systems. Think about the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). As you know, it’s a standardized assessment that uses normative measurement to rank each OPEC nation’s academic performance. Interestingly, the historic data shows that what the top performing nations have in common is implementing a nationalized curriculum with a greater policy influence at the federal level.
We know that attempts to create such a curriculum through the Common Core met a lot of opposition. And most states no longer use these standards. But there’s a real question to be explored in asking how we ensure equity in all our schools if we have no common measure by which to ensure that students are learning well.
I would argue that position statements like those from NCTE can at least provide some common understandings on this front.
For example, among the most significant recent changes to the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in 2017 are:
more flexibility in annual testing
innovative assessment pilots
Understanding that, now is a great time to be sharing the following guidelines from NCTE at the local and state level:
Literacy Assessment: Definitions, Principles, and Practices
Writing Assessment: A Position Statement
Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction
Even if you know personally that a policy is ineffective or at least only partially informed, few of us hold the stature or the connections to cause our opinions alone to sway the decision-makers. But I wanted to share a few concrete steps you can take to arm yourself with the knowledge of things like NCTE’s position statements to build a persuasive case when you want to see a policy change.
Here are 5 steps you can take:
Research the issue thoroughly. For example, selecting a book study as a formal unit required for me and my PLC to research the grade level texts that would best support our students’ reading experience. We wanted to ensure that the book selection would provide a multicultural experience to increase our students’ awareness about diversity and to build understanding and compassion for various societal issues.
Try to understand what misunderstandings or bad advice on the part of the decision-maker is driving this choice. My school district for instance is considered a rural, racially homogeneous community. Deciding to use Malala’s memoir as part of the nonfiction unit study required for us to examine its value in connection to enriching our students’ literacy experiences.
Look for position statements that offer recommendations for what could be done differently. With the NCTE position statements, I felt confident and autonomous in knowing that I had made a right decision to go forward with this book choice.
Think about how to apply these national statements through a local lens.
And finally, set up a meeting to talk, and listen!
I hope you can see that no matter how you step up to create change in education, it’s best not to do it alone but to seek out others to believe in your conviction. Reach out to your colleagues as well as to NCTE members, who are deeply passionate about growing together in support and encouragement.
That’s why I am beyond grateful and honored to stand here with all of you. Each one of us carries an immense power to raise our voices to impact our students and ultimately their voices so that they too will become agents of change
Grace Eunhye Lee is a current NCTE Kent D. Williamson Policy Fellow, a teacher at Hinckley-Big Rock Middle School in Big Rock, Illinois, and a graduate student at the University of Illinois.