A Teacher's Advice for Making the Most Out of the Every Student Succeeds Act

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December 10, 2015 marked an exciting day for a number of educators, parents, students, and other stakeholders who felt stifled under the No Child Left Behind Act. That was the day President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, into law.

Since aggressive education reform has become a part of political posturing over the past decade, many teachers and parents hoped ESSA would end an era of politicians using public education to advance partisan agendas, often at the expense of educators and students. The new law invited stakeholders to participate in crafting solutions for the challenges faced by schools. ESSA’s investment in students and schools, as well as its spirit of innovation, all but guaranteed the development and expansion of collaborative efforts like Promise Neighborhoods and other successful interventions. Most states immediately began gathering groups of stakeholders to draft their ESSA plans.

And now? While many states have submitted plans, funding issues and political posturing have called the future of ESSA into question. Congress is reviewing a proposed 13.5 percent cut from the Department of Education’s 2017 budget. This equates to $9.2 billion of slashed funds, including cuts to Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and 22 other programs and initiatives. While it might be easy to see these cuts—and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary—as the death knell for ESSA, this doesn’t have to be the case. If you value public education and want to see ESSA succeed, there are steps you can take.

1. Leverage Your Expertise. Begin by educating yourself. The National Education Association offers opportunities to learn about ESSA and its impact at all levels. For me, one of the most promising aspects of ESSA legislation is the involvement of stakeholders in the process of developing state plans. Many teachers were chosen to serve on their state ESSA teams, but all could weigh in on the progress by participating in surveys and connecting with their state department of education. Contact your superintendent, school board, or local union to find out what role your district has in the process and how you can join in.

To date, only 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans. There is still time in other states to participate in meetings with state policymakers, so be sure to sign up for email notifications and news alerts from your state’s department of education. To learn and talk about ESSA implementation in my state, I attended a Top 10 in 10 Innovation Roadshow put on by the Michigan Department of Education. Look for notifications of something similar in your area. By taking advantage of opportunities to speak up and participate, you can help ensure the engagement process is open and transparent.

2. Advocate for Your Students and School. ESSA recognizes that public education can’t follow a one-size-fits-all model, so it gives oversight of assessment and accountability back to states and local schools. In addition to traditional indicators like state-designed assessments, ESSA requires that schools demonstrate quality and student support based on an “Opportunity Dashboard” of indicators like student engagement, educator engagement, access to advanced coursework, and school climate. This is an area where teacher expertise is essential. Use tools such as the NEA’s checklist to determine the needs of your school and district, and then engage policymakers in creating meaningful accountability measures.

Often people are willing to help but are waiting to be asked. Ask. First, involve them in determining the needs and goals of your school; then give them a specific task to complete, such as calling or sending an email to their state legislator, speaking at a school board meeting, or holding neighborhood meetings. The more concrete your request, the more likely it will be completed. Do not forget to include all stakeholders in advocating for students. For example, paraprofessionals are an important but often overlooked ally for students. Local civil rights or disability rights groups are highly organized and can be mobilized quickly.

Throughout your efforts, remember that you are the best advocate for your students, your school, and your colleagues—and it’s up to you to make sure teachers' voices are heard. This is especially important as the federal education budget moves forward. Don’t hesitate to call your senators and congressmen to voice your concerns over cuts to programming that you feel will negatively impact your school and your students.

3. Seize the Opportunity. Since No Child Left Behind, many educators have felt disenfranchised and discouraged in their efforts to have a voice in education policy. ESSA offers an opportunity for change. The requirements for state transparency and stakeholder engagement can help ensure that schools will be given the supports they need to serve their students. The law says everyone has a say in policy. Hold lawmakers and state education departments to that requirement. Ask your district to allow you to be involved in planning for the implementation of Title I and other federal money for student support. Use ESSA's goal of innovation to gain support for programs you know would help your students be successful. Even if you are not in a Title I school, there may be other grant money available to help create other opportunities for student academic enrichment.

A big part of many state plans is educator quality, and research supports the need for effective professional learning. There are federal grants available to support effective instruction, and you can work with your district to ensure those funds are spent wisely. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you teach in one of the states that has already submitted its plan, identify elements of the plan you would like to get involved with. If not, look for promising initiatives from plans that have already been submitted and lobby to include them as part of your state’s plan.

ESSA provides a great opportunity to make meaningful changes to public education policy. But ESSA will only be as successful as its implementation—and success depends on participation, not complacency. If we resign ourselves to believing that nothing will change in education policy, then nothing will change in education policy. As educators, our careers are built on a unique form of optimism—a belief that each student is a potential success story—and we need to see that potential in ESSA as well.

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