Every Student Succeeds Act: Cautiously Optimistic
In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in a rare bipartisan effort. The ESSA replaces the beleaguered No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and is the first full reauthorization of the 50 year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in nearly fifteen years. It is long overdue. While questions remain about the implementation and the ultimate impact ESSA will have on student achievement, there are some positive changes set forth in the Act. Specifically, the ESSA addresses the balance of power between the U.S. Department of Education and the states, as well as changes in teacher evaluation and professional development. The ESSA also seeks to improve the relationship between federal and state governments in the identification of and interventions for struggling schools and low performing populations.
Federal and State: Balance of Power
Since the enactment of the ESEA in 1965, the power of the federal government in educational matters has steadily increased. However, the ESSA takes steps to reduce federal power and increase states’ flexibility in determining how they will meet the requirements set forth in the Act. A great example is with student testing. The federal government still requires annual testing in reading and math for grades three through eight and once in high schools. The ESSA provides states flexibility to redesign or improve accountability systems, which may include determining the role testing plays in gauging school progress. While few people will disagree that some testing is useful for determining growth and progress among students, many agree that the amount of standardized testing in schools has gotten out of hand. This new balance of power is a step in the right direction. States should proceed cautiously to ensure that accountability measures are equitable and balanced in approach and provide data that are useful in making decisions regarding next steps in the overall improvement process.
Changes in Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development
Another positive aspect of the ESSA’s redefinition of the role of federal government in education is the end to the requirement that states base a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores. While the new law still holds schools and systems accountable for student achievement, states have the flexibility to determine what criteria should be used to evaluate a teacher’s performance and the weight standardized test results should carry in the evaluation process. Although this is welcome news to many states, there are other states where teacher evaluation remains heavily legislated. This may make the process of initiating improvements to teacher evaluation systems cumbersome in those states.
Complicating matters is the fact that many parts of the country are either currently facing, or are on the brink of a critical teacher shortage. Let’s face it – the current media coverage portraying the challenges that teachers face on a daily basis doesn’t exactly have college students beating down the proverbial door of their nearest teacher preparation program. However, the ESSA does acknowledge the importance of building educator capacity by stating that professional learning for educators must be ‘sustained, (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom focused.…’ Those who work in the field on a daily basis have long-known this truth. It is validating to finally see it included in the legislation that governs much of what we do in our field.
Struggling Schools and Under Performing Populations
The NCLB Act rightly forced schools to pay attention to populations, or subgroups of students such as English language learners, students who receive special education services, or students who live in poverty. Because of NCLB, educators began to take a closer look at the specific learning needs of students and work diligently to meet those needs. The ESSA continues an emphasis on under performing populations by retaining the requirement that states identify their lowest performing schools and intervene. The new Act goes farther than NCLB by giving states the flexibility to determine the interventions they will implement to help struggling schools. Additionally, there are provisions in the ESSA that require states and schools to address low-performing subgroups of their total population and determine the targeted interventions for each subgroup based on their specific needs.
Greater Freedom Demands Increased Responsibility
While it remains to be seen if ESSA will mean improved education for students, I’m cautiously optimistic that this latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act addresses some of the issues critics identified over the past fifteen years of NCLB. Implementation is sure to be challenging and complex. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “With freedom comes responsibility.” Our states have been given a certain level of freedom and flexibility to implement the ESSA. It is also each state’s responsibility to ensure that as they implement the ESSA, they are doing so with integrity and high expectations for all students.