Every Student Succeeds
The ESSA will replace the familiar No Child Left Behind Act as the federal government’s comprehensive legislation which governs education and, famously, accountability for schools, teachers, districts, and states.
This new collection of laws will certainly usher in a period of change for American schools – but just how much does it change, and when (and how) will that change occur?
Before considering the magnitude of the changes involved with the ESSA, it is important to ask why these changes are necessary.
A casual observer of national politics and educational policy may be aware that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was often maligned and criticized for its inefficacy, focus on standardized testing, and position on school accountability. However, the authors of the ESSA cite a new educational landscape as a sign of changing times: high school graduation rates and college entrance rates are at an all-time high, while the nation’s schools boast of dropout rates at historic lows. Basically, legislators leave room for argument that the No Child Left Behind Act worked, and that it is now time to move on to the next phase of improvement for American education.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is a response to a growing desire among parents and educators to create a law that will focus more on the goal of preparing students for the future, either in college or in a career.
As a result, states are given significantly more discretion to create their own goals, which must include “non-academic” standards of accountability, including factors such as school climate, teacher engagement, and access to advanced coursework. One of the major aims of the law is to address the development of the entire student, preparing students for success in life after high school.
Although the ESSA seeks to create a more well-rounded American student, standardized testing is still one component of its accountability provisions. Reading and math tests will remain mandatory for grades 3-8, as well as for one year in high school. However, the new law creates the possibility for up to seven states to participate in a pilot program, where they can try out new, local tests for monitoring growth. This way, states will not be forced to give the same assessment for a decade if it is not working. Additionally, the law allows schools to use tests like the SAT or ACT to measure student achievement.
The ESSA also aims to better identify struggling groups of students (for example, English-learners, special education students, or minority students), by requiring schools to separate out data for each of these groups individually. Previously, under NCLB, schools often combined this data in order to present performance in a better light, often masking the performance issues within specific groups of students. The new regulation is intended to create more transparency in a way that will assist struggling subgroups of students more effectively than before.
One of the most prominent themes of ESSA, and most significant departures from the NCLB, is the large amount of discretion reserved for states and local districts.
Although states still must adopt “challenging” academic standards, they do not have to adopt Common Core. In fact, the Act specifically restricts the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education who, under the ESSA, is expressly prohibited from even encouraging states to choose a particular set of standards.
Additionally, under The Every Student Succeeds Act, states are permitted to set their own goals and to determine on their own how to intervene in low-performing schools using locally-developed, evidence-based interventions. In contrast, the No Child Left Behind Act, prescribed specific goals for schools and then mandated the consequences of failure to attain those goals. Essentially, the new law still requires states to intervene in schools who do not meet minimum criteria, but allows the states themselves to define many of those goals and to develop their own interventions to address failing schools. Under ESSA, when a school does not meet its goals, the districts will work with teachers and school staff to develop an evidence-based plan for improvement. The individual states will then monitor improvement under the plan. If the school fails to meet goals for up to four years, then the state will step in and create a plan – again, within its discretion and without the involvement of the federal government.
Further, the provisions of the ESSA offer more discretion at the local level when considering how to deal with English-language learners and special education students. The law offers different choices for states when determining what kinds of alternative testing to offer, to whom they should be offered, and how to count their test results in school statistics.
So, how will this affect schools – and when?
It appears from the language of the legislation that 2016-17 will be the big transition year (part of which will occur under the Obama administration, and part under the new administration). School waivers, a part of No Child Left Behind, will be null and void on August 1, 2016, and states will be required to submit accountability plans to the Education Department for the 2017-18 school year. Under the new law, there will be absolutely no federal involvement in teacher evaluations (and eradicating the “highly-qualified teacher” label entirely).
There will also be some significant changes to federal funding for education. The ESSA combines approximately 50 currently existing programs (some of which have not been funded in years, but will be revived by this law) into one sizable block grant. More money will be allocated to school turnarounds. There are provisions that require schools with a certain amount of surplus to spend a certain portion on programs that make students well-rounded and that keep them safe and healthy.
Overall, the new laws represent an increased sense of awareness on the part of the federal government of the flexibility needed at the state and district levels to ensure student success, while maintaining high standards that are more focused on a well-rounded student body.