The three are Jenna Fournel, Cosby Hunt and Aleta Margolis — all of them from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit that provides innovative professional learning programs for teachers and seeks to transform the school experience for students from compliance-based to engagement-based.
In their following letter to Biden, Vice President Harris, and Miguel Cardona, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate as education secretary, they urge a focus on “support of inquiry-based teaching and learning, media literacy, anti-racist pedagogy, prioritizing social studies and science, and centering teachers in our democracy.”
Fournel is director of digital programming and communications at the organization, where she leads its #Inspired2Learn initiative. A former high school English teacher, Fournel has served as director of communications for the National Council of Teachers of English. Contact Fournel at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @inspireteach.
Hunt is director of youth programming and leads the organization’s Speak Truth and Real World History programs. Hunt is a National Board Certified teacher who has taught social studies to students and teachers in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. He is also the 2019 National History Day Teacher of the Year, and currently teaches AP U.S. History at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast Washington. Contact Hunt at [email protected].
Here is their letter, with education recommendations to build an engaged citizenry:
Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Dr. Cardona,
We are three veteran public school teachers and teacher-educators, with 80 years of teaching experience among us in Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, and in our hometown of Washington, D.C. For more than 25 years, our organization Center for Inspired Teaching has worked to radically transform the school experience for preK-12 students away from compliance, and toward authentic engagement. We teach teachers to be “instigators of thought” who engage their students as active learners and empathetic critical thinkers. We are not a policy organization. Our recommendations are informed by practice and pedagogy. We speak from the lived experience of teachers and students here in D.C. and nationwide, and decades of experience in working to ensure that all students have access to an empowering education.
On Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the presidential election, we hosted a program for high school students from around the D.C. region and around the country. Our topic was covid-19 and voter suppression. Dozens of students attended. However, very few of them reported having discussed the election in their schools. On Jan. 7, 2021, we hosted a different group of high school students from the District and around the country. The topic was modern protest. We asked those students whether they had talked in their schools about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that had taken place just 24 hours prior. Very few said “yes.”
The young people who are currently high school, middle school, and elementary school students will be our country’s leaders in the not too distant future. They deserve an education that is relevant and engages them in things that matter.
President Biden, in your inaugural address, you proclaimed, “At this hour democracy has prevailed!” Thank Goodness!
However, we at Inspired Teaching believe that our democracy would not have been so deeply threatened these past four years if all of us had grown up going to schools that taught us to think for ourselves and critically analyze information, instead of rewarding us for blind obedience to authority.
In order for democracy to continue to thrive, we need to rethink the way we educate our nation’s students. And we need to equip our teachers with the training and support they need to be changemakers in the classroom. The purpose of education in the United States is to ensure we can all participate fully in our democracy, and that means providing all students with an education that prepares them to become civically engaged members of society, starting today.
Covid-19 has placed a heavy strain on our educational system. Early studies suggest that while some students thrived in a remote learning environment, the vast majority will have suffered learning loss. This is especially true for students in under-resourced schools and communities. An investment in the recommendations outlined below will be an investment in mitigating that learning loss while simultaneously remodeling education in the United States so it is better than it was before covid-19 struck.
We respectfully submit the following recommendations to your administration:
1. Champion intellect, inquiry, imagination and integrity.
For too long we have rewarded memorization, compliance, and adherence to established norms on the part of students and teachers. This kind of compliance-based teaching is especially prevalent in schools that serve students in low-income communities, thereby exacerbating inequalities in access to a quality education. In an era where virtually any information can be gleaned from the Internet or smart speakers, a well-informed and strong-minded citizenry requires schooling in much more than facts and figures. Schools must prepare students to live engaged, fulfilling lives and to take on the jobs of the future.
- Make coursework in inquiry-based teaching practices an essential part of teacher preparation programs.
- Support organizations that provide professional learning for teachers in inquiry-based and project-based learning.
- Make media literacy a requirement in all schools.
- Fund partnerships between schools and institutions that provide hands-on, student-led learning experiences for students and teachers.
2. Adopt an anti-racist approach to teaching all subjects and all students.
It’s time for schools to rethink and redesign their practices and procedures in order to root out racial bias. Schools must examine everything from their classroom libraries to the language they use with students and around content to consider whether their culture is truly inclusive and equitable.
- Ensure anti-racist teaching pedagogy is included in teacher preparation programs.
- Support the development and spread of professional learning programs that show efficacy in anti-racist training for teachers.
- Apply funding to assist schools in evaluating their standards, assessments, and resources like classroom libraries to ensure they are inclusive, equitable, and a reflection of diversity.
3. Prioritize the teaching of social studies.
American education has prioritized math and reading, while history and social studies, the cornerstones of understanding our role as citizens, take a back seat. This is reflected in testing, curricula, teacher prep and professional learning, and students’ classroom experience. Furthermore, social studies has been taught through a Eurocentric lens, centering Whiteness and therefore silencing vast swaths of the true story of our nation.
The events of the past few months and years — including the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, attacks on critical race theory, and attempts to establish “The 1776 Commission” — underscore the need to support teachers in rebelling against any efforts to infringe on the kind of honest, historically grounded education our children deserve. Our democracy was born from dissent. Now is the moment to ensure our students experience an education in which they engage in civic discourse, active listening and thoughtful debate, on topics that are comfortable and those that are uncomfortable.
- Recommend a nationwide review of school curricula to ensure they include even the most difficult parts of our history.
- Support programs and initiatives that foster speaking and listening skills in students, with an emphasis on civic discourse and debate.
- Provide funding for partnerships between museums and schools to strengthen real-world connections to our cultural and civic past, present and future.
- Make curricula and standards more inclusive so our growing population of students of color can see themselves reflected.
4. Bolster science instruction.
This past year our country has been ravaged by covid-19. Yet the debate about whether or not masks are needed and whether or not to listen to scientists rages on. Many of us have even felt the need to post yard signs proclaiming “Science is Real!” This state of affairs is powerful evidence of the need to rethink the teaching of science in our schools.
- Ensure teacher education programs require current, fact-based science coursework, for elementary school teachers as well as secondary science teachers.
- Support programs that provide in-service training for science teachers in inquiry-based pedagogy.
- Encourage collaboration between K-12 schools and science programs in institutions of higher education, research laboratories, and science museums to support hands-on learning and application of science concepts in real-world settings.
5. Increase mental health supports for students and teachers.
The stress and isolation brought on by covid-19 and online learning have increased the already serious mental health problems experienced by young people and adults across our country. We won’t know until school resumes in person how far-reaching these issues are, but we do know that schools and teachers will need significantly increased support in dealing with them.
Teachers know how painful it can be when students in need must wait hours, days or weeks to meet with a mental health professional. Teachers can help policymakers accomplish the following:
- Provide funding to increase the number of guidance counselors, school psychologists and other health-care professionals in schools.
- Require science-based training for all preservice teachers, and ongoing training for in-service teachers, in trauma-informed teaching, including spotting and understanding signs of mental illness.
- Convene a working group of teachers, school counselors and psychologists, other health-care experts, and students to:
— examine the relationship between current methods for motivating student achievement and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and make recommendations for healthier methods, and
— create recommendations for best practice for supporting the mental health of teachers and school leaders.
6. Focus on universal teaching excellence.
For more than 20 years, the national debate around the quality of education in our country has focused on the misguided assumption that enabling parents to choose where their children go to school will somehow ensure them a better education. In too many cases Zip codes do determine educational outcomes. However, debates like those that pit charter schools against traditional public schools have been a distraction. A true democracy requires a high-quality education for every child regardless of where they are born. Every school should be excellent. Every teacher should be excellent. And this is possible if we focus on the root cause of the problem.
- Elevate the job of teaching to a high-status role in our country by centering the role of the teacher in building our democracy.
- Provide support for local and state educational models that place teachers at the center of decision-making.
- Support state initiatives to bring excellent teachers to under-resourced schools by providing reliable loan forgiveness for those who commit to stay in these schools for 10 years.
- Because teaching practices must evolve with the constant changes in our understanding of the way the brain learns and the myriad technological tools always in development — incentivize ongoing schooling and training for in-service teachers through investment in career ladders that keep excellent teachers in the classroom.
We need an effective way of assessing whether all schools are providing all students with a high-quality education. We’ve relied on standardized tests for decades, but time and research have revealed the tremendous flaws of that approach. The current halt in the use of these assessments due to covid-19 should not be a pause before a return to what didn’t work. It must be an opportunity to rethink how we evaluate the efficacy of our schools.
- Place a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing for at least two more years while the Department of Education conducts research into alternative means of assessing student learning and teacher efficacy in schools.
- Support the work of organizations that have a proven track record of developing and supporting schools in the implementation of authentic assessments.
- Ensure funding and support so teachers and staff receive adequate training before implementing new assessment approaches.
- Require teacher input in all facets of research, development, and implementation of new assessment practices.
Please do not go back to business as usual. Commit to elevating authentically engaging, student-led learning while we are reopening schools. President Biden, thank you for the progress you have already made in supporting teachers and students just a few weeks into your administration.
In your inaugural address, you told us: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge and unity is the path forward.” It’s a historic moment for education, too. As we take on the urgent and important work of addressing learning loss, reopening schools and prioritizing the physical safety of students and teachers, we must elevate high quality teaching and learning to a level of equal urgency.
Center for Inspired Teaching has existed in the Nation’s capital through four different presidential administrations, 12 DC Public School superintendents/chancellors, and countless new educational approaches and policies that are more often influenced by political whims than solid research into what is best for students and teachers. Through it all, we’ve devoted our efforts to helping teachers in D.C. and nationwide stand up for best practices and champion our 4 I’s: Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity in every facet of their instruction. The recommendations we outline above offer a blueprint for your administration to do the same.
Jenna Fournel, director of digital programming and communications, Center for Inspired Teaching
Cosby Hunt, youth programming director, Center for Inspired Teaching; AP U.S. History teacher, Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS
Aleta Margolis, founder and president, Center for Inspired Teaching