Headline news: The Every Student Succeeds Act is set to replace the No Child Left Behind Law of 2001, becoming official with Obama’s signature on December 10. At the time, he called it “a Christmas miracle,” and it’s one that will impact every one of our 50 million public school students and 3.4 million teachers—parents and taxpayers, too.
It’s been a long time coming…
The first big governmental education reform effort made its debut as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was just 32 pages long and intended to ensure “equitable resources for the poorest students.” Its Title I section, still in place today, provides grants to states for direct payment to local school districts, and, even now, is “by far the largest source of federal money for local schools.”
Then came President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Law of 2001, a game changer, for sure. As the Washington Post’s Lindsey Layton explains, “NCLB set up a national system that judged schools based on math and reading test scores and required schools to raise scores (in math and reading) every year or face escalating penalties.”
A qualified teacher in every classroom was one of its goals, but accountability via standardized test scores was its heart. Make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or your school faced the consequences in the form of imposed “improvement steps” and “corrective actions.” For example, this year’s 5th graders had to do better than last year’s or else. No wonder that we started hearing the phrase “teaching to the test.”
Most unrealistic of all: By the end of the 2013-14 school year, all students had to test in the proficient level or higher—as if that were even remotely doable.
With all that still in place, along came Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan in 2009. Together, they doubled-down on the law, promoting charter school growth, the Common Core State Standards, related online assessments, and teacher evaluations (value-added measures) based on student standardized test performance. Meanwhile, NCLB was reauthorized in 2011.
They eventually also came up with state waivers in anticipation of that 2013-14 deadline for 100% student proficiency in math and reading and other strident NCLB mandates. At the time, they said, “We’re going to let states, schools, and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for jobs in the future.”
As Politifacts’s Sara Myers explains, that meant “requiring states to create college- and career-ready standards; identify over- and under-performing schools; develop a plan that increases achievement at all performance levels, including identified subgroups; implement meaningful teacher and principal evaluations, and reduce duplicate paperwork and bureaucracy.”
44 states and the District of Columbia have now signed up, with some having also applied for or still seeking extensions.
The result: low teacher morale, parents opting their children out of standardized testing, charter schools hitting record numbers, declining enrollment in teacher prep programs, and now a shortage of teachers in our nation’s classrooms…
Enter NCLB’s replacement: The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, a bi-partisan effort headed by Tennessee’s Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Patty Murphy, a Democrat from Washington. So, where we once promised not to leave any kid behind, we’ll now ensure that every one of them meets with success.
Along with the name change, ESSA lets states develop their own school evaluation systems, degree of parent involvement, and even their course offerings. It also greatly diminishes the power of the U.S. education secretary, which the current one, Arne Duncan, used relentlessly to increase governmental control of our schools. (He’s now on his way out.)
Among its other tenets:
1. Annual testing in math and reading for kids in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
2. Test scores must be made public according to race, income, ethnicity, disability, and English Language Learner (ELL) status.
3. States can choose how to intervene in its worst-performing (bottom 5%) schools.
4. States can decide how to evaluate teachers, instead of those value-added measures based solely on student test scores, which graded even non-reading and math teachers.
There’s a lot more, of course; after all, the document fills 1,016 pages. For now, though, Senators Alexander and Murry are planning for “at least three major” oversight hearings on implementing ESSA, how it will all come together and work. Included will be school board members, teachers, and state school chiefs.
In the long run, though, only time will tell if ESSA is an improvement, just more of the same, or even a step backward. Complaints and concerns are already out there, so stay tuned; maybe keep your fingers crossed, too.