The Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA]

Are you aware that No Child Left Behind [NCLB] has been replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA] and how it may affect your student while in school?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015, and represents good news for our nation’s schools. This measure reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students.

The new law builds on key areas of progress in recent years, made possible by the efforts of educators, communities, parents, and students across the country.

For example, today, high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. Dropout rates are at historic lows. And more students are going to college than ever before. These achievements provide a firm foundation for further work to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes under ESSA.

The previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was enacted in 2002. NCLB represented a significant step forward for our nation’s children in many respects, particularly as it indicated where students were making progress and where they needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, disability, home language, or background. The law was scheduled for revision in 2007, and, over time, NCLB’s prescriptive requirements became increasingly unworkable for schools and educators. Recognizing this fact, in 2010, the Obama administration joined a call from educators and families to create a law that focused on the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers.

The passage of ESSA presents unique challenges and opportunities for states with respect to how states select and use high school assessments. States are now facing important decisions about which high school assessments to administer, what content these assessments will measure, and how these assessments will factor into their new accountability systems.

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Congress has attempted to revise the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act – a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – for many years and has not been successful. On Dec. 10, 2015, The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by the House (359-64) and Senate (85-12), and received President Barack Obama’s signature.

Educators are unclear how the new laws will affect education and concern is that the new law will help in some ways and other ways there is a clear negative reaction to the law. One of the largest concerns is that education in each state has not recovered from the recession that affected funding. The provisions of the bill do not vary significantly from the “accountability through testing” mandates that have marked federal education policy during the start of NCLB. The main difference is that the ESSA hands the educational accountability ball from the federal government to the states.

ESSA is better, because it takes aim at test and punish strategies, and creates some valuable programs. But ESSA, like NCLB, emphasizes K-12 accountability over root causes of educational inequality, and the new law does not favor federal oversight as a positive position for vulnerable children.

Organizations with widely divergent views on education agree that the ESSA should replace NCLB. Civil rights leaders who had opposed earlier versions of an NCLB revision as well as the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, charter advocates and the testing reform group Fairtest all see the ESSA as better policy than what now exists. ESSA provides more flexibility on testing. It also ends “Adequate Yearly Progress” – a measure that required schools to show test score gains. Schools that failed to meet goals were penalized. Other provisions in ESSA are also genuine steps forward, such as preschool development grants for low-income children and an arts education fund. In addition, the new law drops the term “core academic subjects” and uses instead a “well-rounded education,” meaning that subjects like social studies and arts are less likely to be what one study called “collateral damage of the No Child Left Behind Act.” The ESSA also stops the practice of putting multiple student subgroups (students with disabilities and low-income students, for example) into “supersubgroups” – a practice that can mask inequities. But these changes are more about what’s bad in our current policies than what’s good in the new bill.

In 2013, for the first time, low-income children became the majority in U.S. public schools, prompting the Southern Education Foundation to warn that unless we provide more for these students, “the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.” Poor children and their families and communities show tremendous resilience and learn in spite of tremendous obstacles, but many times, family income closely correlates to academic achievement.

Schools must monitor academic performance of vulnerable groups, which include students living in poverty. So states will still have to test 95 percent of children, and intervene in the lowest performing schools. That means the ESSA will likely do little to disrupt the NCLB pattern of “punishing” vulnerable children and the “low performance” of the schools they attend. This will not fix achievement gaps. Testing mandates in the ESSA continue the retreat from the anti-poverty focus of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In signing that act, President Lyndon Johnson identified poverty as the “greatest barrier” to educational opportunity, and under Title I provided $1 billion for schools with large numbers of poor children. Though Title I is central to the ESSA, LBJ’s understanding that educational achievement depends on civil and economic rights is largely absent. Thus the new law seems unlikely to hit pause on the practice of disproportionally penalizing vulnerable students and their schools.

Often, charters, which receive increased support under the “Expanding Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools” section of ESSA, replace closed schools. Yet charters have a decidedly mixed record, particularly with English language learners and children with disabilities. The ESSA’s support for charter schools reflects a philosophy that favors autonomy, whether through privately run public schools, or through less federal regulation. Yet historically, expanded federal control of education, from nineteenth century land grant colleges, to the GI bill, to the original ESEA, has meant that public education could not avoid its responsibility to educate all children. The obligation to educate all children is weakened when we send the federal government to the sidelines. Given their history of opposing certain kinds of reforms, is it wise to trust states to develop their own separate and potentially unequal guidelines and practices?

Almost every page of ESSA concerns K-12 schools. But investments in early childhood education are both critical to educational success and cost-effective in the long run. Access to quality preschool is particularly critical for poor children. The new legislation proposes to allocate $250 million for preschool grants, but because of the importance of the ages from birth to three years to learning, many educators consider that far too little.

All this means the newest version of the ESEA is unlikely to lead us to a future where all children will be able to access high-quality educational opportunities. As long as attention remains on testable accountability in K-12 schools rather than on poverty, inequality and early education, “every student succeeds,” like “no child left behind,” will continue to be an unfulfilled promise.

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