Policy Check-In: How is ESSA Shaping Up?

Policy Check-In: How is ESSA Shaping Up?

It has been four years since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law on December 10, 2015, some eight years after the federal education policy law was due for updating. By putting pen to paper, then-President Barack Obama authorized the long-awaited revamp of ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act—which, in turn, was former President George W. Bush’s 2001 rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) initially authorized in 1965.

Though the acronyms for federal education policy have changed since the 1960s, the overarching goal remains to provide all children with access to “full educational opportunity,” according to a post on the U.S. Department of Education website. Indeed, the ESEA was created by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Civil Rights era and was tied to additional funding for both low-income students and state departments of education. For the first time, the federal government signaled a comprehensive commitment to maximizing and maintaining the value of schooling for all—a commitment driven largely by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that sought an end to racially segregated public schools. 

As National Public Radio reporter Cory Turner phrased it, the ESEA was “hugely important, not just to our nation’s schools but to the social fabric.” 

An era of new accountability

Using the ESEA as a foundation, President Bush's NCLB tied federal funding to new accountability measures, primarily via a dramatic uptick in the amount of testing required for all students in grades three to eight. While many education observers decried this rise in standardized testing, others pointed to the increased accountability associated with requiring schools to document the progress of all students, including those from marginalized communities and/or in need of special education services. In short, there was more federal-level oversight of schools than ever before under NCLB, thanks to annual testing mandates and the demand to see that the entire student body was making “adequate yearly progress.” 

While the intent of NCLB was admirable, the policy soon became regarded as setting an impossible standard and being inadequately backed up by resources and support, especially for students deemed the most in need.

A more flexible alternative

The initial NCLB authorization famously forecast a very optimistic future, stating that all students would “meet or exceed the State's proficient level of academic achievements on the State assessments” by 2014. As we know now, the goal of getting students to grade level in math and reading over that time period and within the boundaries of the NCLB framework was unrealistic.

Indeed, the numerous issues embedded in the NCLB legislation itself helped pave the way for ESSA. Buoyed by bipartisan support, ESSA takes a step back from stringent accountability mandates, prioritizes greater autonomy for state-level education departments, and—as characterized in a post on the National Association of School Psychologists' website—allows for “much greater emphasis on and flexibility in decision-making and funding options” by emphasizing a more holistic approach to student success.

Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success

For example, while NCLB zeroed in on math and reading scores at the expense of other aspects of schooling, ESSA shines a light on the need for more mental and behavioral health support for students. And in addition to upholding the annual testing mandates instituted by NCLB, ESSA also pushes for a broader understanding of how to help struggling students and schools. 

Yet according to Rafael Heller of the education-focused Phi Delta Kappan magazine, consistent implementation of ESSA has been a widespread challenge in the years since the policy's inception, and “it remains difficult to see in ESSA anything like a coherent, guiding vision for the federal government’s investments in education.” Moreover, Heller went on to opine, aside from “recommitting itself (weakly) to NCLB-style testing and accountability … [the law] articulates no new set of guiding principles for school improvement.”

Too many options?

Additional articles from the September/October edition of the Phi Delta Kappan covered some of the finer points of ESSA. Indeed, a piece by education researchers Lance D. Fusarelli and Jennifer B. Ayscue acknowledged the need for continued vigilance when ensuring states use their newfound autonomy under ESSA to focus on equity as they broaden the definition of student success.

As Fusarelli and Ayscue pointed out, many states are including key indicators such as chronic absenteeism (“strongly associated with poor performance in school”), student suspension rates, and funding disparities between high- and lower-poverty schools, with some states using as many as 10 different indicators in their quality assessments. While the researchers welcomed this more nuanced look at student and school achievement, they cautioned that too many indicators could lead to a lack of focus, as “the amount of data generated could easily become overwhelming, making it difficult for schools to improve in any single area.” 

Support required

Another piece in the Phi Delta Kappan—this one written by Maria Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University—argued that although ESSA set the stage for more local control of education policy and accountability measures, states can’t (and shouldn't) go it alone. Certainly, the central value associated with evidence-based intervention and support cannot be overstated, yet building a framework to realize such value must be undertaken with a dose of realism that considers state and district capacities. 

“Nobody wants to make excuses for education leaders who are not prioritizing their students,” Ferguson wrote. “But states and school districts stand a far better chance of making progress if they are encouraged to set ambitious goals and are given the support needed to achieve them.” 

Ultimately, a balance between optimism and realism may be precisely what is needed to understand ESSA-associated potential and risk.


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