DURHAM, N.H. — Kathy Collins has seen firsthand the struggles with budget cuts, standardized testing, and lack of local control schools across the country face.

For Collins, a literacy specialist who works in the Portsmouth School District in addition to traveling the nation as a literacy consultant, it was this firsthand knowledge and experience that drew her to the Save Our Schools march on Washington planned for later this month.

“I work in so many schools and the struggles and negativity are shared across schools, both rural and urban,” she said.

The Save Our Schools march and rally, scheduled to take place on July 30 in Washington, D.C., aims to bring attention to and fight many of these struggles.

Organized by a group of current and former educators from across the country, the march is expected to attract tens of thousands of teachers, parents, and community members to the nation’s capital to protest current educational policy.

Hoping to join that crowd are several teachers and community members from New Hampshire, like Collins, who hope to affect change in the country’s educational practices.

According to the N.H. coordinator for the march, UNH professor of education Sarah Stitzlein, while there are not many teachers going from the state, she is confident they will join many others from across the country.

“In general, the march has attracted significant attention,” Stitzlein said, adding that celebrities such as Matt Damon, and educational celebrities, like former Asst. Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, are expected to attend in support of the march.

According to the march’s website, attendees will march to the White House around 1:30 p.m. on July 30, where demands for change to education policy will be read.

Teacher Knows Best

The website says one of the most important aspects of America’s educational policy that organizers and participants are hoping to change is the amount of federal control over teachers, schools, and how they are run.

Stitzlein said the increased amount of government control in recent years has hurt schools, not helped them.

“When schools are run by local control, you have a vested interest from parents and community members,” Stitzlein said. “Suddenly, no one’s listening to local teachers anymore.”

Because of the lack of local control Stitzlein said, teachers and administrators are finding it harder to fix problems in their schools.

Teachers are saying “I know a lot about teaching, local schools, and how to fix their problems,” Stitzlein said. “But teachers aren’t getting a fair shake to share their opinions.”

Maribeth Wilkerson, a local graduate student of education at UNH who is also hoping to attend the event, agreed, saying that protesting the amount of federal control over local schools was one of the aspects of the march that drew her to it.

“Public schools are serving a particular community, so for that community not to have a say in what’s taught and how doesn’t seem right,” Wilkerson said. “Education needs to fit the students you’re teaching, not the other way around. Teachers are the ones who know students best.”

State Rep. Laura Jones, of Rochester, and a member of the House’s education committee, also agreed that more local control is necessary in education reform.

“Over the years… more and more control has shifted to the state government and then federal government,” Jones said. “It seems to me we need to get back to local control. The people closest to the situation have the best ideas of how to fix the situation.”

Rep. Frank Guinta, NH-R, said he, too, worries about the level of federal control over education.

“I commend New Hampshire teachers for their passionate commitment to education,” Guinta said Thursday. “I share the concerns of those who worry that the federal government is too deeply involved in local education.”

Still, Guinta added the goals of federal education reform policies, like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are important.

“No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were created to provide accountability factors for teachers and individual schools,” Guinta said. “Those are necessary goals. But we should never take a one-size-fits all approach to education. Each school’s needs are as unique as the students they serve.”

Many of the teachers attending the Save Our Schools rally, however, are calling for an end to the high stakes testing that is part of both of these policies.

Race to the Test

Both No Child Left Behind, originally adopted by President George W. Bush, and Race to the Top, enacted under the Obama administration, use standardized testing to measure student progress and the effectiveness of schools and teachers. Protesting these policies is one of the most important goals of the march.

This focus on testing, Stitzlein said, may actually be hurting schools more than it helps.

“With the heavy emphasis on testing, education becomes about constant assessment as opposed to developing creativity,” she said. “It takes up a sizable amount of instruction time.”

According to Stitzlein, while the testing aims to help students become more proficient in areas like reading and math, it often adds unnecessary stress to students.

“A lot of kids get very distraught over tests,” she said.

Wilkerson can relate. As a child, she said, she hated taking standardized tests, something that she feels is a common sentiment among many young students. And feeling uncomfortable about testing taking, she said, can lead to lower scores.

Wilkerson said testing may not always be an accurate assessment of what students have learned, and therefore, how well their teacher has taught them.

Collins agreed, emphasizing standardized testing cannot only negatively affect students, it can also hurt teachers.

Under current federal education policy, Collins said, the results of standardized tests can be used to punish those teachers whose students do not perform well, potentially resulting in a deduction of pay or even letting a teacher go.

However, while tests can be used to assess a teacher’s quality of work, she said, tests do not give teachers feedback on how to improve.

“Teachers never see the results, they just see a score; it doesn’t help improve their teaching,” Collins said.

Wilkerson agreed, adding that because teachers have different students with different abilities every year, it is impossible to see through standardized testing whether the teacher has improved.

“It’s hard to base it all on a test,” she said.

According to Collins, however, while she and other teachers may not approve of using standardized tests to assess teachers, they realize that testing will not go away.

“We don’t want it to go away,” Collins said. “We want it to change so that it’s about kids and helping teachers teach better.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a former teacher in Dover, agreed, saying that while assessments are necessary to education reform, they can be improved.

“We must set high standards for our students, but measure their progress in better and smarter ways,” Shaheen said Thursday. “We need assessments that do not rely on a single test taken at one point in time in a school year, but assessments that measure growth in achievement year after year.”

And while many of the teachers in support of the Save Our Schools march take issue with No Child Left Behind, Shaheen suggested the policy was simply in need of improvement.

“We must work to ensure that all students receive a world-class education that gives them the skills to compete in today’s global economy,” Shaheen said. “The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives us a chance to fix the No Child Left Behind law and enact additional reforms.”

The March and Beyond

While the N.H. teachers planning on attending the Save Our Schools march agreed that change cannot happen overnight, they said they hope the march will make a difference in educational policy.

“I’m hoping a critical mass of teachers and parents are heard,” Collins said. “And I really hope Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) pays attention.”

According to Wilkerson, the march and rally will also help encourage teachers to be more outspoken about the issues they see in their school districts.

“People who go into teaching often go with a moral purpose, believing they can make it better,” Wilkerson said. “But then they get frustrated because they don’t see the change they want to see… we need to have a new conception as having a moral purpose but also having the agency to change things.”

Collins agreed, saying the march and rally will help those teachers who want to make a change realize that they’re not alone in their goals.

“I simply want to hang out with some really passionate teachers and speak truth to power,” Collins said.

Copyright (c) 2011, Foster’s Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.