Educator Voice in Policy: ESSA was just the Beginning

There is something about finding your voice as an educator and using it to advocate for student-centered policies that brings a sense of satisfaction and motivation to advocate even more. All stakeholders’ voices should be heard and encouraged when creating policy and making decisions for students, but for many years, educators were often left out of the conversation. ESSA began to change that.

ESSA required states to obtain input from stakeholders on their state accountability plans, including teachers, parents, students, and community members, many of whom for the first time had a seat at the table. This was a step in the right direction and represented a huge opportunity for states to bridge the divide between policymakers, state leaders and educators, and leverage their expertise to develop and implement meaningful policies. Many states, for the first time, prioritized educator voices in a way that hadn’t been done before.

ESSA encouraged states and district to move toward a model of shared decision making, which strengthens the role of teachers and makes them better leaders in their own classrooms and schools. Teachers experience firsthand how decisions and policies impact our students every day and are therefore uniquely positioned to provide input on important decisions at the school, district, and state levels.

As an educator, I saw ESSA as an opportunity for parents and community members to come together with educators and continue to advocate for equity, justice, and quality in every public school. So I worked with a group of colleagues to hold an ESSA town hall (one of the first in the country) to ensure state leaders understood the challenges that students and teachers faced, so they could be more informed and aware of our priorities and hopefully address them in our accountability plan. Participants came from the PTA, PTO, staff and legislators from the state House and Senate Education Committees, the South Carolina Oversight Committees, superintendents, principals, State Board members, and representatives from the Urban League, which provided a diverse set of perspectives, priorities and led to productive conversations.

We discussed a variety of topics, from how to transform our thinking around assessments and how to measure student growth, as well as how we could use ESSA to connect communities and build stronger school-community relationships. The town hall served as a model for educators across the state and set the precedent for state and community leaders, as well as the other advocates and stakeholders, and teacher input continued to be sought out and included in our accountability plan.

Although there has been great progress engaging educators in South Carolina, there is still more work that can be done. Decision-makers must continue building relationships with teachers to use their expertise and experience to inform the development of policies and understand how implementation will affect students and teachers. I am encouraged by the engagement that has happened as a result of ESSA and am hopeful that the state will continue to seek educator input in the future.

Stephanie M. Johnson is a 2nd Grade teacher in Columbia, SC. She is certified in elementary, administration, and national board-certified in early/middle childhood literacy. Stephanie was a 2018 Lowell Milken Educator for Unsung Heroes Fellow and was a 2017 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence recipient, one of five educators from across the country to receive the annual honor. She enjoys consulting, public speaking, and being a community and education activist. Stephanie received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the University of South Carolina, also a Masters in Executive Leadership from Gardner Webb University.