Back to the Future: ESSA Becomes Law

President Obama on Dec. 10 signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, reauthorizing the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act and marking the first revision of ESEA since 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law.

The new law returns more control to the states and local school boards for setting educational policy, identifying and determining corrective actions for struggling schools, and measurement metrics for evaluating teachers.

This shift in power—and responsibility—is occurring as many states still are debating adoption of Common Core State Standards. The Obama Administration has encouraged the adoption of CCSS, which began as a state-level push for higher and more uniform academic standards. Under ESSA, the U.S. Department of Education no longer can interfere in state and local decisions regarding accountability and school improvement activities by prescribing specific methods or systems.

Thus, while CCSS as a particularly defined set of standards probably already is under fire and probably is doomed, states individually could continue efforts to raise academic standards.

Whole Curriculum

In the initial years of NCLB, when federal funds poured into schools to promote reading and math improvement, publishers that provided programs in step with NCLB guidelines did well. But the focus was so heavily on reading and math that other subjects often were neglected by schools.

Under ESSA, the focus can return to the whole curriculum. In that sense, ESSA is positive for a broad range of instructional materials providers, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group at the Association of American Publishers, told EM. “I don’t think any publisher sees this as a bad event,” Diskey said of ESSA.

Improving student achievement and improving underachieving schools remain elements of the new education law. States still have to intervene in the worst-performing 5% of schools and in high schools where graduation rates are below 67%.

ESSA significantly streamlines and reduces the number of existing federal programs, while authorizing dedicated funding to priorities like innovation, increased access to STEM education, teacher quality and accelerated learning. For example, ITECH, a new educational technology state grants program in the Senate version of the bill, was moved into a larger flexible $500 million block grant.

The new law also expands access to state-funded preschool programs.

Testing Changes

ESSA maintains annual statewide assessments in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as well as science tests given three times between grades 3 and 12.

But, the associated pressure that the NCLB-era testing engendered may be on the wane. Several states, including Florida, already have moved to reduce the amount of testing time devoted to testing.

And states are re-thinking the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Florida earlier this year cut the amount of a teacher evaluation that can be based on student scores to one-third. Test scores had counted for 50% of the evaluations.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the North Carolina state Board of Education, said ESSA may give the state the chance to reassess its own teacher evaluation system, which uses student test results in part. “A teacher evaluation instrument is something that requires constant review and discussion,” he said. “I hope that this will allow that.”

Overall, the new law pushes the right buttons in California, too. State leaders have baulked at many federal requirements, including use of test scores for teacher evaluations. ESSA is more aligned with the state’s own education reforms that have shifted more power to local school districts.