As 2015 drew to a close, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest stab at national education reform and the successor to the much-debated No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Educators, families, and political leaders have largely cheered the demise of NCLB, which was a 2001 reauthorization of the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Among other things, NCLB made federal funding contingent on students passing more stringent standardized testing. Originally intended to hold schools accountable for ensuring quality education, the act ran into stiff criticism. Parents and teachers chafed at the all-consuming focus on testing. Administrators in struggling schools believed the consequences–funding tied to test scores, school closures, and teacher replacement, among others–were too punitive in the face of decades of disinvestment in low-income schools. And other critics felt the law was an overreach by the federal government.
So is ESSA the answer? The new law grants states and districts more control, easing the federal oversight introduced in NCLB. Advocates say the new law lays the foundation for the innovation needed in education, but others wonder whether it will hurt the kids “left behind” by its predecessor.
First, some good news.
With federal funding no longer tied to test scores, and an impossibly high bar for proficiency abolished, states, districts, and teachers have more flexibility on curricula. If a school wants to launch a “program, it can do so without dangerously ignoring material on a critical standardized test. If it wants to inject hands-on learning by opening a makerspace, it can also do so. By relaxing the focus on testing and specific subject matter, ESSA allows for educational approaches that empower students.
The new law also mandates a data collection model designed with equity in mind. Standardized-testing results are divided by “subgroups” including racial groups, English Language Learners, and low-income students. The information should reveal which populations need more support. Under previous law, states could report data for “super subgroups” that combined multiple groups of students.
That said, some question whether ESSA is actually the major makeover it purports to be. A few changes aside, skeptics think it does little to solve the problems wrought by NCLB.
Although no longer under federal oversight, schools are still required to test students and report the results to their state. Beyond that, states create their own accountability systems, deciding independently what qualifies as a school that needs improvement. ESSA requires that those benchmarks be based on a combination of test scores and other factors, like school safety or access to advanced coursework, but states have wide discretion in creating the standards.
States intervene in the lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom 5 percent in the state, those where fewer than two-thirds of the students graduate from high school, or those where subgroups chronically under-perform. Those schools must create an “evidence-based plan” for improvement. The state monitors them and steps in if they fail to improve after four years. States have a number of intervention options, including replacement of the principal and staff, or conversion of the school into a charter.
This consequence-based system, say the authors of a US News op-ed, could once again mean school closures, rigid curriculums, and teacher replacement in lieu of training—now at the behest of the states instead of the federal government. Because states can make significant changes when they intervene in struggling schools, “the ESSA will likely do little to disrupt the NCLB pattern of ‘punishing’ vulnerable children and the ‘low performance’ of the schools they attend,” speculate the authors, Mary Battenfeld and Felicity Crawford. “This will not fix achievement gaps,” they say, adding that it could result in wildly different standards and practices from state to state.
New America Foundation’s Conor P. Williams is also cynical. “Is there any reason to believe that states are willing to design accountability systems that actually require them to focus on schools with lots of underprivileged and underserved kids?” he asks. His answer: “Ha.”
Regardless of who holds the reins, ESSA’s emphasis on K-12 accountability draws attention from the societal conditions that create education disparities in the first place, Battenfeld and Crawford argue. That is, it does little to address poverty and systemic inequities.
How can education policy combat such entrenched inequality? The answer lies in early childhood education, say the US News authors. The students deprived of learning opportunities as children are often the ones who end up at elementary and secondary schools that “fail” under both old and new standards.
A decades-long study following about 1,500 children in Chicago is among a growing body of evidence for the lasting impact of publicly funded early education. The subjects of the study graduated from Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, which provide preschool as well as services for kids and families through third grade. Among the initial and eventual results of attending the program were improved academic achievement, fewer juvenile arrests, and increased economic success—not to mention significant relief for taxpayers.
ESSA includes $250 million in preschool grants, which is a step in the right direction, but advocates like Battenfeld and Crawford question whether it will be enough to make much of an impact after decades of underfunding early learning and its workforce.
So while ESSA lifts the most restrictive and threatening provisions of NCLB, paving the way for education innovation, it remains to be seen how well it will support the underserved students it is designed to help. The law goes into full effect in 2017.