“One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing and you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky”

These lyrics from “Summertime” were repeating in my head as I was flying home from Washington, D.C. last Friday. All of the State Teachers of the Year (STOYs) had been sponsored by Scholastic to participate in the Education Commission of the States’ (ECS) 2016 National Forum on Education Policy. In addition to the STOYs, governors, legislators, chief state school officers, and other education stakeholders were in attendance.

On June 29, 2016, the Forum began with the STOYs attending a special session. Prior to the Forum, we had received reports regarding shortages in the teaching profession. During our special session, we were asked to contribute our thoughts on this issue. From support networks for new teachers to autonomy and strong leadership, the STOYs were ready with their solutions to this growing concern. Next, Representative Dennis Roch from New Mexico and Dr. Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s Commissioner of Education, shared their advice on speaking with the policymakers that would be in attendance at the Forum.

Following lunch, the opening session was kicked off with a speech from the President of ECS, Jeremy Anderson. He explained to us that the purpose of ECS was to create better education policy through researching, reporting, counseling, and convening. Next, there was a panel discussion on dual enrollment. During this discussion, Governor Steve Bolluck of Montana said that his state gives coupons for credits. This means that anyone that teaches a dual enrollment class receives a coupon for taking college courses. I was intrigued to hear that this coupon could be used by the teacher or passed on to their children or students. The panel discussion was followed by an Ed Talk on ESSA with David Adkins. In his Ed Talk, Adkins said that “every journey in education is personal”.  After the plenary block, there was a concurrent block where we were able to select a session to attend. I decided to attend the session on school finance. This was mostly centered on the formulas used for school funding and the emerging issues of increased funding for high needs students. The day ended with roundtable discussions. I was excited to participate in the discussion on the arts. During this discussion, representatives from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts shared with us the 2020 Action Agenda from the Arts Education Partnership. I was proud to share the Louisiana Music Education Working Groups’ recent recommendations for improving arts education in Louisiana. Other participants shared ways that they integrate the arts into their classrooms.

Thursday morning began with an Ed Talk by Brandon Busteed from Gallup. He started with looking at the Latin roots for the word “education” and then stated that “we’ve created a system of stuffing into and haven’t created a system for leading things out of” as the Latin roots suggest.  Later, he also stated that “Hope is a stronger indicator of college completion than test scores or grades “. This was followed by another Ed Talk with Fredi Lajvardi. Lajvardi shared the story of how his high school’s robotics team was able to defeat MIT and other universities in an underwater robotics competition. He said that the key to their win was that the imagination of his students was released when they didn’t worry about failure. The incredible accomplishment of his students has been told in a documentary, a book, and the movie “Spare Parts”. The morning’s plenary block ended with a panel discussion on poverty and what states are doing to close the achievement gap. For the concurrent block, I attended a session on turnaround innovations. I found it interesting that the panel recommendations included giving teachers more autonomy and increasing enrichment programs.

During our lunch, the keynote speaker was Dr. John King, the U.S. Secretary of Education. He spoke about the opportunities of ESSA. From ensuring equity in education to engaging a broad group of stakeholders, he said that ESSA is “not a compliance exercise”.  Instead, he described it as a “change exercise”. Following his speech, there was a panel discussion on ESSA. This panel included Audrey Jackson, 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Jacksom had been selected as a teacher representative for the ESSA implementation discussions with the U.S. Department of Education. Throughout the meetings, she had shared with the STOYs updates on the discussions and asked for our input.

For Thursday afternoon, I chose to attend the concurrent block session on “Building Capacity in K-3” as I teach in a K-3 school. Along with some initiatives from various states, we heard that ECS will be creating guides to action for policy makers for the k-3 grades. This was followed by the plenary block beginning with an Ed Talk from Elizabeth Huntley where she talked about the importance of early childhood education. Next, there was another panel discussion on college affordability where it was stressed that discussion on higher education should involve the value of a college education and the programs being offered. The day ended with another Ed Talk by Evan Marwell, the CEO and Founder of Education Superhighway. He talked about the power of digital learning. I was surprised to see in his graphics that 50-74% of schools in Louisiana don’t have internet connectivity. His solutions for solving this problem included setting up fiber matching funds, aggregate procurement, increase options, and revamp state contracts.

The last day of the Forum began with an Ed Talk by Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year. Her talk carried the message that time, trust, and hope is important for impacting student success. Next, there was a panel discussion on teacher shortages. Later, I also attended a concurrent session on the issue of teacher shortages. These discussions took a look at the indicators for teaching shortages and policies for recruiting and retaining teachers. The Forum ended with an Ed Talk by Dana Goldstein, author of “Teacher Wars”. It was fascinating to hear the history of the politics behind the teaching profession and how teachers are either portrayed as “angels or villains”. I loved it when Goldstein stated that teachers are neither. Instead, she said that teachers “are professionals wanting to grow”.

As you can see, the National Forum on Education Policy covered a wide variety of issues in education. I left the Forum better informed on the “why” certain policies are put into place and a better understanding of how I can influence and shape educational policies as a teacher. Yes, I’ve learned how to “spread my wings” and “take to the sky”.

Pictured with Andrea Santos, 2016 West Virginia State Teacher of the Year, and Amy Neal, 2016 North Dakota State Teacher of the Year
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