An Open Letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

Dear Senator Collins:

Almost nineteen years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in a conference room on the University of Maine and had dinner with the cohort of pre-service teachers I’d be together with for the next 13 months as we studied to obtain our entry-level Maine public school teaching certificates in the University of Maine’s M.A.T. program. I spent the following academic year interning and then student teaching in some of Maine’s public schools, including Old Town High Schooland Hampden Academy. I learned the craft of teaching from excellent, highly-trained, and deeply experienced mentor teachers, and studied with some top-notch University of Maine professors. That spring, I accepted a job teaching high school English at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

I am originally from New Jersey, and after two years of teaching at OHCHS, I moved back to New Jersey, where my mother was battling cancer. But Maine – and particularly Maine’s education system and Maine’s students – remain dear to my heart.

One of the two most important courses I took during my master’s program at the University of Maine was my course in inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In that course, I learned about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and what my responsibilities were going to be as a general education teacher tasked with educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, as required by IDEA.

As I am sure you know as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, what the least restrictive environment means is that children with special needs are required by law to be placed in a general education classroom or a setting as close to the general education setting as much as possible consistent with that child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education. That is, the least restrictive environment provision is IDEA’s anti-segregation provision: it precludes public schools from simply shunting students with disabilities off to the side, separate and unequal, with little or no meaningful access to peer interaction with typically developing students.

During the two years in which I taught at OHCHS, I attended countless IEP meetings, and worked diligently to effectively implement IEPs in my classroom. I served students with all sorts of special needs in my general education classroom, and I believe all students – both typically developing and those with special needs – benefited from learning together. When appropriate, I also supported decisions to move children in my classroom out of my classroom to resource rooms or other environments that could better meet their needs, as the least restrictive environment must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes is not the general education classroom. I always thought carefully about those decisions, and worked to make sure that my general education classroom was as inclusive as possible for students with special needs.

When I returned to New Jersey, I left teaching and eventually enrolled in law school. In private practice, my proudest work to date has been my work as a pro bono attorney on impact litigation filed by disability and education advocates to try to force New Jersey’s Department of Education to faithfully implement the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA, as New Jersey, unlike Maine, had – and sadly continues to have – one of the worst records in the country on including students with special needs in general education settings. Unlike my requirement in Maine almost twenty years ago, to this day, New Jersey does not require its pre-service general education teachers to take even one credit of coursework specifically aimed at learning to teach students with special needs in general education classrooms, which I believe at least partly explains New Jersey’s problematic record on implementing the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA.

At this point, it is apparent that the only thing that might help New Jersey enter the 21st Century on this issue would be meaningful enforcement of IDEA’s least restrictive environment provisions by some combination of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Civil Rights. As a result, it is imperative that the Secretary of Education – of either party – have considerable expertise in the language, provisions, implementation, and enforcement of IDEA (and Section 504).

I watched Betsy DeVos’s HELP committee hearing, and I’m watching the vote (well, actually, this far into the letter, the procedural wrangling following the vote) live right now. What boggles my mind is what one of your colleagues – I can’t recall which one right now – just said about the U.S. Department of Education having essentially two jobs when it comes to K-12 education: (1) to carry out the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) and (2) to carry out IDEA. What was clear as day at Ms. DeVos’s HELP committee hearing was that Ms. DeVos was dangerously unfamiliar with at least one half of her job: that half of her job in which she’s tasked with ensuring implementation of IDEA.

As a cabinet level position, Secretary of Education cannot be an entry-level job. Yet there is no question that even I have significantly more familiarity and experience with IDEA than Ms. DeVos. When you were my Senator, I had great respect for you and your primary concern with effectively representing the people of Maine. You are no longer my Senator, but I continue to believe that you have integrity and that the people of Maine will support you so long as you vote your conscience.

As a fellow American, I urge you to vote no on Betsy DeVos when her nomination comes before the full Senate. Every child, parent, teacher, child study team member, and other educator or related services professional deserves an education leader in Washington who has significant expertise in his or her job. Half of Ms. DeVos’s job when it comes to K-12 education is implementing IDEA. Ms. DeVos demonstrated her lack of expertise in this area, and, even more concerning, has not expressed outrage at the fact that students with disabilities are being asked to waive their rights under IDEA if they want to access school voucher programs.

Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserves better. Please put the people of Maine and the United States ahead of party loyalty. Please vote no on Betsy DeVos’s nomination when her nomination comes before the full Senate.

Very truly yours,

Sarah Blaine

Are Teachers Professionals?

Peter Greene recently published a pair of pieces, here and here, on the quality of teacher education programs.  Reading his pieces — and the Ed Week blog post that inspired them — inspired me to share a few quick thoughts.  

A dozen years ago, as I sat in my Professional Ethics course one day, my ears perked up.  My professor was discussing what it means to be a professional, and was listing the traditional professions: law and medicine.  I spoke up: “What about teachers?  Aren’t teachers professionals?”  His response: “Absolutely not.”

As a former teacher, I was floored.  I think I had to reach down and physically pick my jaw up off the floor.  But in hindsight, as infuriating as I found my professor’s pronouncement at the time, his reasoning actually makes sense.  As my professor explained it, one belongs to a profession if current members of that profession take responsibility for controlling entry to that profession.  That is, lawyers — in law schools — educate future lawyers, and lawyers — through state bar examinations created and scored by lawyers — determine whether law school graduates are fit to enter the legal profession.   As I understand it, the same holds true for doctors, who are educated in medical schools, internship programs, and residency programs by doctors, and who must pass their medical boards — i.e., exams for future doctors created and scored by doctors — in order to practice medicine unsupervised.  

Superficially, traditional routes for entry into the teaching profession sound similar.  Those of us who have been licensed teachers completed a degree — either undergraduate or graduate — in a program taught by some combination of former and current teachers, and then most likely passed some iteration of the Pearson-produced Praxis test or other licensing tests required by our state departments of education.  The difference, however, is in those final words of the prior sentence: “required by our state departments of education.”  Teachers do not regulate entry into the teaching profession: rather, government bureaucrats and for-profit testing companies do.  That distinction makes a world of difference.

These days, we are constantly subjected to assaults on the teachers: by the media, by parents, by politicians, by members of the public, and sometimes by other teachers, who complain about the quality of their coworkers (I heard this from a couple of public school teachers just in the past few weeks).  We hear that teachers are lazy, that they’re lacking in content knowledge, and we parents are known to judge some of them pretty harshly ourselves.  I know that I have a habit of seeing red when teachers send assignments home from school that are riddled with spelling, grammar, and/or syntax errors.  

But take a moment, and imagine an alternate universe in which teachers are responsible for regulating their own profession.  Imagine communities where practicing teachers make the final determination of whether candidates for the teaching profession are ready to be granted professional licenses — with the knowledge that they themselves are responsible for the perceived quality of their profession.  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who appeared to lack a grasp of the conventions of written English?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who did not have deep content-area knowledge?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who had not proven himself capable of effective classroom management?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who hadn’t proved himself knowledgable of the latest theories of child development and principles taught in educational psychology courses?   

Imagine teachers observing, mentoring, and evaluating candidates based on metrics they themselves developed for determining who merited a license to teach in a classroom filled with children.   Imagine the entrance exams that teachers — not Pearson — would create to ensure that those who are to follow in their footsteps are adequately prepared for the awesome task — and it truly is awesome — of ensuring that our country’s children are educated to be thoughtful, compassionate, and productive members of a society that embodies democratic values.  I truly believe that we humans tend to rise to a task when we are granted the autonomy necessary to take pride in our work, our colleagues, and our professions. Imagine, if you will, a public policy in which master teachers — like Peter Greene — truly have a say on not only what happens in the classroom, but on who is qualified to be counted among their colleagues.  Imagine teaching as a profession.  

Personally, I’d rather see these guys (included in these pictures from NPE are Jesse Hagopian, Jose Vilson, Anthony Cody, Stan Karp, and Peter Greene along with dozens of other teachers I didn’t get a chance to speak with):

EduShyster Jennifer Berkshire Interviews Jose Vilson and Peter Greene at NPE 2015

Jesse Hagopian speaks on Black Students Matter at NPE 2015

The room, packed with teachers, at Jesse Hagopian’s Black Students Matter presentation at NPE 2015

Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years Present at NPE 2015 

 determining entry into the teaching profession rather than people like these guys:



After all, our kids deserve teachers selected by professionals who know what they’re doing.  I, for one, place my faith in the teachers, not the bureaucrats and politicians.

P.S., Obviously, we lawyers could also do a far better job at self-regulation than we do.  I certainly count myself among those attorneys who have had the experience of wondering how, exactly, my adversary managed to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam.  But at least we only have ourselves to blame.