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Los Angeles educators’ questions for Betsy DeVos

Guest contributor | January 16, 2017

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By Ama Nyamekye

Twenty-two U.S. Senators will sit before Betsy DeVos on Tuesday morning and determine her qualifications to serve as Secretary of Education, a critical role in shaping education policy across our nation.

Along with determining the direction for the Department of Education for years to come, this confirmation hearing will prove crucial for another reason: It will be the first time that the majority of our nation’s educators – including nearly 5,000 members of Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles (E4E-LA) – will hear about the priorities and passions of our nation’s likely future Secretary of Education, someone who has never served as a teacher or school administrator herself.

In anticipation of this significant moment, E4E asked teachers in Los Angeles as well as across the nation to pose the questions they hope Ms. DeVos will answer. Their questions take aim at some of the most pressing issues facing teachers, students and parents in our city today – and they underscore not only the importance of elevating educators’ voices, but the subjects that our senators must address this morning as well.

Among the many topics of interest and concern, E4E-LA teachers highlighted three key areas they hope our senators and Ms. DeVos will discuss: how to increase opportunities for teacher preparation and professional development, expand support for English Language Learners and students with special needs and continue the work of creating healthy and affirming school learning climates.

Teacher Preparation

Here in California, for the first time in 13 years, the number of teachers in preparation has increased, but too many continue to enter the classroom without the skills necessary to close achievement gaps in our high-needs schools. Plus, many more great educators are leaving the classroom without realizing their full leadership potential. We must focus on giving our teachers opportunities to grow, by better linking their observations and feedback with more support and professional development opportunities and through creating more opportunities for teacher leaders to mentor their less-experienced or struggling peers.

At the federal level, this means we need a Secretary of Education that is able to help create programs such as the Teach to Lead initiative, which is achieving progress by creating pathways for effective teachers to develop and exercise leadership skills, inspiring them to stay in their jobs longer. We hope to hear from Ms. DeVos a commitment to teachers and their boundless ambition.

English Language Learners

In recent years, California has also made great strides in increasing equity in educational opportunity for high-need student populations. With the passage of Proposition 58 this election cycle, non-English languages can again be included in classrooms, increasing the flexibility for schools to help English Language Learners learn in the most appropriate setting. The Los Angeles Unified School District also receives additional funding to support these students as well as other high-needs students – including students with special needs or from low-income backgrounds. Los Angeles teachers want to see the Senate Education Committee pose questions around Ms. DeVos’ views on the success of these programs so we can work toward national policy that similarly ensures equity of opportunity for all students.

School Climate

The final regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act issued in November 2016 directed states to promote welcoming and inclusive school climates that support the learning needs of all subgroups of students, while providing specialized instructional support personnel, such as school counselors and social workers.

Los Angeles teachers are eager to see that federal resources will continue to be allocated in support of these policies, especially as a way to reduce rates of expulsion and suspensions – and the disparities in the groups of students disproportionately affected by these discipline practices. Given this, the Senate Education Committee must address Ms. DeVos’ views on how policies can support schools in ensuring every student feels welcomed, safe and valued.

Like my fellow educators in Los Angeles, I hope that our senators on the Education Committee will tackle each of these issues with Ms. DeVos. If she is to represent the public education system in our country, she must answer to its teachers. And given Ms. DeVos’ own limited experience at the front of a classroom, it will be especially important that she is held accountable by those who must live our nation’s education policy each and every day.

Ama Nyamekye is the executive director of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles.

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provided funding to The 74 from 2014 to 2016.

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