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Educator's concerns heard on Capitol Hill


Sigrid Grace invited to Washington to talk about 'No Child Left Behind'



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With the Capitol Building as the backdrop, Sigrid Grace shared her opinions about No Child Left Behind legislation with a committee of Senators.
June 06, 2007
ALMONT — The notion that our nation's leaders actually listen to the voices of average citizens would probably come as a surprise to many.

But Sigrid Grace, a 2nd-grade teacher at Almont's Orchard Primary School attests to the fact that sometimes they do.

As evidence, Grace was invited on May 23 to Washington D.C. to testify before a Senate committee, weighing the pros and cons of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A 32-year veteran of public school education and the National Chair for Early Childhood Development programming, Grace was among 30 experts to speak to a steering committee about NCLB legislation.

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The committee included Senators Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid and Debbie Stabenow, among others. Its purpose was to determine which elements of NCLB are working and which need improvement.

Grace says she was surprised to discover that she was the only public school teacher invited to offer input on the subject.

"The other speakers had very high credentials," says Grace. "Most of them spoke philosophically. The subject focused on the accountability and quality of teachers. I wanted to explain the effect NCLB is having on children and teachers in the classroom."

Grace's position is that the pressure to succeed academically is being placed on students at developmentally inappropriate ages. The result, she says, is that some children become frustrated and discouraged early on.

"We are asking very young children to be held academically accountable," says Grace. "I am very concerned that this early testing is having a negative effect on the kids. It's a good test, but I'm not convinced it's helping students."

Because tests are administered to entire grade levels at one time, there is limited measurement for individual student achievement—which should be the primary goal of education, says Grace.

"It is better to follow the progress of the individual child instead of large groups at a time," she says. "We need to test their growth. Some children come to us behind grade level. If they are brought up to or above grade level, there should be a measure to show that progress has taken place."

Despite being overwhelmed by those with whom she shared the podium in Washington D.C., Grace believes there was genuine attention given her by the committee members.

"I felt like they were really listening and paying attention to my concerns, which are the practicalities of this kind of testing and how it affects kids," she says. "I don't think most teachers mind being held accountable, but we want it to be meaningful and beneficial to the children.

"We need to be able to work on the whole child—not just constantly drilling them on academics," says Grace. "Along with this there has been a reduction in time spent on other subjects like art, music, history and science. We need to have a mixture in education. I think student learning is more important than testing."

Grace also resents that No Child Left Behind is placing very high expectations on teachers and children, but without providing the necessary funding to accomplish the task.

"There is what we refer to as a 'funding gap," says Grace. "There has been a huge shortfall in funding. It hasn't lived up to what had been promised."

She also favors small class sizes as a means to enhance student learning and improve test scores.

"It's only common sense that students and teachers can do better when class sizes are smaller," she says.

Though her speaking time and main talking points were limited to about 15 minutes, Grace hopes she was able to make some impression on the committee.

"When I left the Capitol, I felt optimistic," she says. "The Senators were very gracious and respectful. And they seemed to be listening. I was honored to have been able to provide some input on behalf of the people who actually teach and deliver the program to the children."

The No Child Left Behind Act is expected to be renewed later this year. Legislators have been working to tweak the law to better serve students.

Supporters of NCLB report that student achievement is on the rise, citing across-the-board improvements in reading and math.

Editor's note: Sigrid Grace is president of the Almont Education Association and is Chair of the Early Childhood Educators Caucus of the National Education Association. She resides in Rochester with her husband, John. They have three children: John, Virginia and Margaret.

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