As NEA President Lily Eskelsen García has said before, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) isn’t only about getting rid of the era of toxic testing, it’s about finding ways to improve all aspects of education and doing so with the expertise of those who know it best – our educators. As such, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, hosted a panel-style listening session on the implementation of ESSA so he could hear from educators. Joining Thompson on the panel were federal lobbyist Erin Duncan of the National Education Association (NEA), Jacki Ball of the National PTA, and Matt Stem, Pennsylvania Department of Education

NEA members at the state and local levels are being encouraged to participate in similar panel discussions and town hall meetings with policymakers from both major political parties regarding ESSA, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2015. The law replaces No Child Left Behind and brings significant changes to elementary and secondary education policy, including federal funding flexibility for school districts and a return of power over education to states, school districts, educators, students, and parents.

The panel discussion and listening session was held at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania and titled, “The Every Student Succeeds Act: Empowering Educators and School Leaders for the 21st Century.”

Community members now have the chance to weigh in on district and state ESSA plans to make sure they include the states’ and districts’ plans for providing the kind of support and resources students actually need. Officials with NEA and state affiliates are now asking that people contact school officials and fill out an “opportunity checklist” for schools that will improve learning conditions. Visit myschoolmyvoice.nea.org to see the checklist. Reducing testing, increasing enrichment programs, improving school climate, updating technology – anything and everything that makes a school great should be on the list.

At a similar community listening session in April, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García called for states and school districts to use an “opportunity dashboard” composed of key indicators of school quality to advocate for the schools our students deserve.  The indicators are largely data already captured by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They include access to advanced coursework (AP/IB, dual enrollment, college gateway math and science) fully-qualified teachers, specialized instructional support personnel (school counselors, nurses and psychologists), high-quality early education, arts and athletic programs, and community health care and wellness programs.

“On every state and school level they are asking us to provide a dashboard of indicators of what makes a school successful, things that measure student success beyond standardized tests like access to classes offer college credit in high school, access to rigorous classes, or gifted and talented programs in elementary schools,” she said. “And a librarian! That’s like a unicorn in some places, having a librarian in some areas is like a fable, but we know a staff librarian is a measure of school success.”

She encouraged everyone to visit the best schools they can find and take inventory. Do they have an orchestra? A school nurse, librarian and counselors? How about updated technology? Are there AP classes, baccalaureates, after school programs, enrichment classes, and nutrition programs? She said that educators should make a list of all the things that make a school great and demand that they be offered at their own schools. ESSA offers that opportunity.

“It’s all about voice, your voice,” she said. “Talk to each other. Partner with each other. Together we can design the schools of our dreams.”