Teaching Future Teachers: Florida International University Professor Ryan Pontier Discusses How Florida’s ESSA Plan Changes How He Teaches Education

In 1965, at the height of the US civil rights movement, the U.S. government signed into law the Elementary Secondary Education Act which aimed to give all students equal access to K-12 public education. In 2015, it signed an updated version of that legislation, calling it the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Civil rights group like UnidosUS were instrumental in the law’s passage. But advocates worry the ESSA plans of some states don’t live up to the law’s name, and Florida is ground zero for this debate. Last month, it became the last state in the union to receive federal approval for its ESSA plan.

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In its approved ESSA plan, Florida will now have two systems for holding schools accountable for their performance. The first is the already existing A-F system, which is how most people in the general public, as well as many policymakers determine a school’s level of success. The second is a new method called the Federal Points Index, which will measure a school’s performance by taking into account the specific performances of historically underserved groups such as low-income and minority students, as well as English language learners. But critics say that data could easily go under the radar, making it hard to access.

Families have grown accustomed to the original grading system, and that’s the one the state will continue to use as an indicator of how well students do on average, and that will ultimately determine if the most vulnerable students are getting the help they need. The dual system approach is particularly problematic for English learners since Florida has one of the nation’s largest populations of students learning a home language and English.

To learn more about how this impacts Latino students, UnidosUS has been reaching out to policy experts like Ryan Pontier, a professor of education at Florida International University in Miami. Prior to obtaining his doctorate, Pontier taught elementary school in Southern Texas and South Florida. He says his Texas students fared better than his Florida ones because he could instruct and assess them in their native Spanish while still teaching them English. UnidosUS asked him to explain how Florida’s ESSA plan shapes the way he now teaches the state’s future teachers.

Florida International University Professor of Education Ryan Pontier

Q:  What makes Florida a dynamic place to teach?

A: We say that we value a global economy, and we have it right here. Florida has approximately 300,000 emergent bilingual students—those who are learning two or more languages—the third-largest number in the United States. This is a gift. It means that our students employ numerous ways of understanding the world and expressing themselves so that they are understood. Our students—and their families—come from all over the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have the ability to share their rich experiences and world views with other students and teachers.

Q: And what makes Florida a challenging place to teach?

ADuring my time in the classroom, I knew that there were challenges that were not being addressed either adequately or at all. For example, I had a diverse student group here in Miami, but that did not mean that they received an equitable education. Rather, they came to school with a variety of strengths, but only certain strengths were valued, and all students were expected to be taught the same material at the same time. Our students’ bi/multilingualism is often not treated as a strength. Instead, it is viewed as an obstacle or a problem to be solved. In fact, it is often referred to as a “barrier.” When preparing to teach and after beginning to teach, teachers are not adequately supported in providing the specialized instruction that emergent bilinguals need to meet their unique learning needs. Of particular challenge is that teachers are taught to view emergent bilingual students from a deficit perspective—that they don’t have the language or skills needed to succeed in school. On the contrary, though, emergent bilingual students come to school with a host of strengths that often go unnoticed because those strengths manifest themselves across all of their languages, not just in English.

If we truly believe that all students deserve the same opportunities to be successful, we must advocate for policy change that reflects equity.

 Q:  Florida’s ESSA plan was the last in the union to get approval and it still receives lots of pushback from civil rights organizations like ours. Tell us more about what concerns you about the plan from the perspective of an education professor. What has it been like trying to prepare educators in this state as the ESSA debate dragged out?

A: I have chosen to inform my students–future teachers—that our state is intentionally ignoring the wellbeing of our most vulnerable students. I engage them in tasks that ask them to purposefully focus on the diverse strengths that students bring to school and to ask themselves what they and other students can learn from those strengths, especially if those strengths are different from their own.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in preparing future teachers to be critical of what and how they teach is that what they see happening in public schools is not what they are taught in their teacher preparation programs. This mismatch makes it difficult for future and new teachers to try and maintain the use of the most recent research and practice in their classrooms. Instead, they are often indoctrinated with the status quo. For example, they place emergent bilingual students in front of computer programs in hopes that they learn the complex English needed at school, don’t allow (or teach how to) access to bilingual resources, or view them as confused when they show typical bilingual learning “errors” like writing in English but using the sentence structure of Spanish. These approaches have not worked in supporting emergent bilingual students or others who are traditionally marginalized and oppressed.

I teach my students that they must be change agents from within the system, that they have a voice for themselves and for their own students and that they can create change by working with—not against—those who are already experienced in the school system.

Q: Now that the plan has been laid out, how will you adjust what you teach?

A: Personally, my approach will stay the same, since I have always employed a bilingual approach to everything I teach. However, I will be certain to include the fact that our state has now intentionally chosen to avoid equitably educating ALL of its students. Specifically, we will address the separate accountability system created to report critical data such as subgroup accountability and progress in gaining English language proficiency. We will discuss how this information is reported to the federal government, but that it does not affect the school grade that each school is assigned every year. We will highlight the importance of assessing students in multiple languages—not just English— if we truly want to get an accurate picture of what they know and can do. We will recognize that our state refused to provide this opportunity, even though it was a requirement for compliance with the federal law. All of this work will be couched in investigations of equity, bringing awareness to the promulgation of racist practices rooted in the history of our education system.

Q: How can you empower your teachers to speak up about challenges they and their students are having in the classroom? How does this translate to civic engagement at the educator and parental level?

A: Teachers should first and foremost engage in teaching practices that honor and support all of their students. Then, teachers should always share their stories because they are the most powerful tool they can wield. Teachers can/should attend school board meetings to share their stories, although this can be  extremely difficult because, for example, Miami Dade County Public Schools holds its board meetings at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesdays when teachers are working. Teachers should also communicate with other elected officials to share their stories.

Q:  What advice do you have for other professors of education in the state?

A: Knowing how past and present legislation affects our must vulnerable students is essential. It shapes how much education and whataccess to various support systems students receive. If we truly believe that all students deserve the same opportunities to be successful, we must advocate for policy change that reflects equity.

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