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What’s the Toughest Part of ESSA For District Leaders?

By Alyson Klein — August 12, 2018 3 min read
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It’s (almost) the end of the summer and educators are preparing to go back to school. Nearly every state has an approved Every Students Succeeds Act plan ready to implement.

So this question from a reader who wished to remain anonymous seems especially timely: What’s the toughest part of the Every Student Succeeds Act for districts to get a handle on?

That’s a somewhat subjective question, and we weren’t sure how district leaders would answer it. So we asked a few experts.

The biggest concern for superintendents is that ESSA doesn’t seem to be a very big departure from the law that it replaced, the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy & advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“There’s a recognition that the promise of decreased paperwork, individualized accountability [for districts] isn’t a reality,” Ellerson Ng said. “State plans look a lot like NCLB 2.0. ... The full benefit of the law isn’t being felt.”

Districts also anticipate challenges with the test-participation portion of ESSA. The law says that schools that test fewer than 95 percent of their students must face some sort of consequence. But it also allows states to pass laws affirming parents right to opt their kids out of testing, as Oregon does, for example.

And superintendents want to make sure they live up to ESSA’s push for more equitable funding between high-poverty schools and other campuses. But it’s a challenge to figure out how to ensure dollars are fairly and reliably distributed at the per-pupil level, Ellerson Ng said. (ESSA includes some new reporting requirements on fiscal equity that you can read about here.)

Some districts are also confused by a lack of clarity surrounding Title IV of ESSA, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, which districts can choose to use on several programs, said David DeSchryver, a senior vice president and director of research at Whiteboard Advisors. (DeSchryver also works with the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators, a membership organization based in Alabama.)

He’s also heard concerns about a requirement that districts, as well as local health agencies, ensure that students in foster care are able to stay in their “school of origin” (a term ESSA doesn’t define), even if it’s no longer their neighborhood school.

And DeSchryver is beginning to hear questions about a requirement in ESSA that schools and districts use “evidence-based” interventions with their lowest-performing schools. That might be trickier than it sounds on paper.

“Once you begin to unpack how to do it well, you realize it opens up other questions and requires protocols and procedures districts may not be ready to do right out of the box,” he said.

Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization representing urban district leaders, said he hasn’t been “hearing much complaining” from his members about ESSA implementation just yet. He expects that districts may have more questions as states finalize changes to accountability plans, requirements for English-language learners, and reporting requirements.

Do you agree that these are the toughest parts of ESSA? Think there’s another part of the law that won’t be easy to put in place? Or do you have another ESSA question for us to tackle? Email us at, or

Want to see what other readers are wondering? Here are links to past installments of this feature:

How Does Funding For ESSA’s Testing Requirements Work?

Does ESSA Require Teachers to Be Highly Qualified?

Can Districts Use ESSA Funds to Buy Crossing Guard Signs?

How Are States Handling Testing Opt-Outs Under ESSA?

Can Districts Use the SAT or ACT for School Accountability Without State OK?

Which States Are Eschewing School Grades?

How Can Districts and States Use ESSA to Bolster STEM and Computer Science?

What’s Going on With Testing Audits?

What’s Up With ESSA Block Grant Funding?

Is Testing the Only Way a Student Can Achieve Success Under ESSA?

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information: