Establishment of an NCTE DC-area office last summer was only a first step towards expanding our organization’s influence on policies shaping literacy education. Over the past few months, the executive committee has taken a vital next step by carefully researching pending legislation, hosting hearings with key congressional aides, drafting, and approving a legislative platform. The platform will guide on-going work at the national and local levels to inform legislators regarding measures that can truly support, not inhibit, high quality teaching and student learning.
Building the Platform
Last April, a group of NCTE officers and staff leaders met with the government relations staff of the American Association of School Administrators, widely recognized as one of the most effective education groups in Washington DC. Bruce Hunter, their Director of Government Relations, described the process that they use to establish an annual legislative agenda. It involved inviting AASA executive committee members to a series of briefings and working sessions in Washington DC each winter to gather information, focus on the most critical issues to AASA members, and establish core positions for the organization. They invited experts and legislators from both parties to brief them, took several days to analyze and debate positions, then drafted a document that established positions on matters in which their members had both expertise and concern. Subsequently, they developed a field network to offer expert testimony on the issues, and to mobilize their membership to generate communications as needed to inform the legislative process.
After evaluating the AASA experience and practices of other leading education groups, the executive committee appropriated funds for members of the government relations subcommittee and NCTE Officers to come to Washington DC in late January to draft a first-ever NCTE legislative platform. In preparation for the meeting, the NCTE Federal Relations Director (Sandra Gibbs) and our Legislative Consultant (Ellin Nolan) scheduled a series of meetings at the Longworth Building with legislative staffers from the Senate HELP committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. They offered a full day of testimony and data about the future of matters like the Higher Education Act, No Child Left Behind Reauthorization, and emerging federal programs relating to high school reform and the American Competitiveness Initiative.
NCTE leaders then spent the better part of the next two days sifting the testimony and information, and drafting a platform document for consideration by the full executive committee in February. Eventually, two documents were passed—a more detailed, technical document for staff to use to advise Congress about specific legislative provisions, and a more thematic document for use with public audiences.
The legislative platform incorporates various NCTE resolutions and guidelines, and weaves them into a series of recommendations to Congress. While consistent, progressive themes are found throughout the document, it draws special attention to matters of immediate policy concern at different scholastic levels and in areas where we have greatest expertise (notably, teacher preparation, professional development, and research). Here’s a selection:
- Early learning recommendations call for a full, independent, study of Reading First to evaluate its long term effects and overall effectiveness. A restoration of full funding for Head Start is singled out for federal action.
- General K-12 recommendations focus on decreasing the emphasis on high stakes tests while investing in assessments that advance, not merely measure, student learning. Further exploration of “growth models” that incorporate longer term evaluations of student cohorts is advocated, as is greater support for English language learners, teachers in high-needs schools, and well-informed literacy coaches.
- Teacher preparation recommendations focus on the need for legislation to support teacher learning about subject matter content and pedagogy. It warns federal investment in only a narrow range of research methodologies or programs aligned solely with this research. It calls for full integration of new technologies in teacher preparation, and establishment of program assessments based on consistent, long-term data drawn from students who have completed teacher preparation study, rather than students who have completed other degrees.
- Professional development, and access to it, is a major focus throughout the document. The emphasis in the NCTE Platform is on support for career-long professional development that is designed to meet local challenges. Measures that expand access to mentors and literacy coaches are advocated, as is more funding for programs that promote the integration of technology and that leverage partnerships between universities, school systems, businesses, and non-profit organizations.
To bring our platform and related issues to the attention of key policymakers, two major undertakings are scheduled for April. During the latter half of the month, a series of email invitations to schedule appointments with Congressional Representatives in their home offices will be sent to NCTE member activists. It will include links to our platform, supporting research briefs, and logistical advice on scheduling and making the meeting count. For those who want to meet key office-holders in Washington DC, we are hosting English Language Arts Advocacy Day on April 27. The day will begin with briefing from Congressional Aides, NCTE staff members, and our legislative consultant (Ellin Nolan). In the afternoon, participants will be invited to share their perspectives on literacy education issues through meetings with their Congressional Representatives and Senators.
As we move ahead, members can expect to find more frequent briefings on the Squire Policy Research Office web pages and more frequent calls to action through the emailed action alerts and announcements in the NCTE Inbox. This is a critical period in the history of our organization and a time of opportunity for the larger literacy education community. We have the experience, research base, and energy needed to improve education legislation and learning outcomes in English language arts classrooms. Our challenge today is to develop the grassroots organizational capacity to bring our expertise and carefully-considered messages to policy makers. With the active participation of members at local and national levels, we can resist one-size fits all “solutions” and make a positive difference for teachers, students, and their families.