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Mom Congress Day One

Kathryn Thompson

My day started at 3:30am, when my alarm woke me to get out of bed and head to the airport.  I put on a little makeup, got dressed and walked out the door with a string cheese and too many pairs of shoes.  I’d had trouble sleeping the night before, a mixture of nerves and excitement at traveling so far and meeting so many new people and sadness over leaving Dan and the kids for four days.  I think there was also a bit of paranoia mixed in, paranoia that my alarm wouldn’t go off.  That’s one of those flights you don’t want to miss, you know?  As opposed to those other flights that you totally don’t mind missing…

After what was a fairly uneventful, if long, 8 hours of travel, I ended up in a cab with a man who was ADAMANT that I convert to Islam.  He made a good case for it and I now know how to get a copy of the Koran, should I ever have a need.  He dropped me off on the lovely Georgetown University campus where the weather is warm, the trees are blooming, and an army of moms is milling around.

The women are chatty and excited but it’s not the usual playground chatter.  There are the normal mom jokes and stories of our kids but they’re interspersed with tales of work with legislators and intense volunteer work, passionate advocacy and exciting new initiatives.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I  am in awe of these women.

With the long journey across the country from Seattle and the time difference, I didn’t make it to the opening sessions of the conference.  I’ll have to borrow someone’s notes.  I did come in time for the food.  Dan asked if it was yummy and I’m sure it was but there was too much energy, too many conversations going on to really concentrate on the food.  Luckily I got lost on the way back to my room with Arkansas delegate Michele Easter and we found a little student grocery store with all the essentials, goldfish crackers, Teddy Grahams, and peanuts.

The people at Parenting and Georgetown University have packed so much into the schedule for this conference, it’s kind of mind-boggling.  Just at the dinner tonight, we heard from Marguerite Roza, PhD, from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Betsy Landers, President-Elect of National PTA.  And things start again bright and early tomorrow.  Breakfast is at a time my body thinks is 4am.   Then we just have session after session after session of amazing speakers.

Here are a few thoughts from tonight’s dinner and discussion:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is an amazing force for good in education reform that has gotten a bit of a bad rap in blogs and news outlets lately.  They’re doing important work to determine what it is that makes a great teacher.  And for this, they have been frequently vilified as being anti-teacher, their methodologies of watching and evaluating educators criticized for being too Big Brother-like.  I’ve frequently read the criticism that Bill Gates is trying to take over the education system and remake it in his capitalist image.

Here’s what I have to say about that.  Whether you agree with the direction they’re taking, I think it’s a fair concession at the very least to say that The Gates Foundation is not spending millions of dollars to destroy education, that their work is sincere and evidence-based and that they’re really working to make a positive change in education.

I cringe when I hear them talk about bigger class sizes, but listening to Marguerite Roza talk tonight, she argued fairly convincingly that class size does not play a measurable roll in academic achievement unless you can get the numbers down to 15 or 17 kids in a classroom.  Since that’s not likely going to happen anytime soon, the idea is that adding a couple more students to a classroom won’t make a drastic difference and the money saved could be used to pay teachers more or to use technology to give students better access to outstanding educators from around the country.

I think it would wait to be seen whether the money would really make it to the places they want it to go or if increasing class sizes would be just one more pill teachers would have to swallow, never seeing the rewards for their sacrifice.

When Melissa Bilash asked Dr. Roza about the need for improved teacher training, Dr. Roza said that we can’t have effective teacher training until we know what makes a teacher effective.  That’s why she said, “Everything else hinges on getting that teacher evaluation system in place.”  She said that we need to find out if our states are working to implement comprehensive teacher evaluation systems, not simply based on test scores.  She said, “They can’t afford not to have one.”

With the current economy, I believe she’s right.  We need to have the best teachers in the world so we need to offer them the support and training they need and make sure all teachers have the tools they need for success.  One of those tools is usable feedback on their performance.  Another is hand sanitizer.

When speaking about testing kids, she said that we should get things running in a way that we don’t have to shut down for weeks or months each year to evaluate them, only to find out that some kids haven’t learned what they needed to learn for the past 6 months.  By then it’s too late to adjust.  She said that with the help of technology, we should be able to get feedback a bit at a time throughout the school year so that no kid can fall too far behind without her teacher knowing about it.

I like when we talk about technology in terms of freeing teachers to do what they do best – teach.

Betsy Landers, President-Elect of National PTA, had some encouraging words about family engagement.  She also announced that U.S. Representative Todd Russell Platts (R-PA) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) will be introducing the Family Engagement in Education Act this week.  The bill, which I’m sure we’ll hear more about in the near future, incentivizes districts to actively encourage family involvement in closing the achievement gap.

I had several exciting conversations with the delegates who are all extremely upbeat and passionate.  This should be a great year for Mom Congress and for this blog with so many fantastic and diverse voices contributing.  There likely weren’t two women in that room who agreed one hundred percent with each other on how everything needs to be done, but they all agreed that something must be done and they’re all willing to roll up their sleeves or your sleeves or anyone’s sleeves who’s willing to help to improve the state of things in this country.  I’ll have more for you tomorrow.  I can't wait!

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler, and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.