School & District Management Opinion

New Education Law Moves U.S. Closer to California’s Path

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — December 09, 2015 7 min read
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The No Child Left Behind act is headed to the morgue. Expect more people at the wake than the funeral for this unpopular experiment in driving education reform almost entirely with negative incentives.

The new version of the longstanding Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was widely hailed even before it sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives last week and the Senate this morning. (Education Week reporter Alyson Klein has done a masterful job of dissecting the new 1024-page law and provides a useful “cheat sheet” summary of its provisions.)

No Longer So Exceptional

The new law moves the country closer to the path created by California, as it pointedly broke ranks with President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, creating what I’ve called the California Exception. Plainly put, California balked at what it considered federal overreach. It found the test-and-punish approach dysfunctional and opted to put substantial resources into building its capacity to perform at higher standards.

ESSA signals a U-turn in federal direction. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate education committee, called the new law “the most significant step toward local control in 25 years.”

The instinct for moving decisional authority downward matches Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for “subsidarity.” This idea has been carried forward in the most radical school finance and accountability reform in 40 years: the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and its companion, the Local Control Accountability Plan. As was the case in California, the new federal legislation eliminates several categorical funded programs in favor of larger block grants.

Investments in Capacity

Following the 2008 recession, where California schools lost nearly 30 percent of their state revenue, Brown and the state legislature invested heavily in education, raising per pupil expenditures by $1,800. But it refused to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores and suffered the ire of Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education.

The state was only one of seven not to receive a statewide waver granting it relief from some of NCLB’s most onerous provisions. The teacher evaluation issue also prevented the state from receiving a large grant under the secretary’s signature school improvement program, Race To The Top.

Duncan also forcefully opposed California’s abandonment of its old tests to allow students to take the field tests of the new Common Core aligned exams, and at one point, he threatened to withhold funding to the state. He recanted.

The new law sweeps away the teacher evaluation and test score linkage; in fact, it forbids the Secretary or the U.S. Department of Education from any involvement in how states evaluate teachers.

State Assessment Reset

ESSA also hits the reset button on statewide testing. Annual tests remain under the new law, and California’s use of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests fits easily into the new federal testing requirements for annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

California’s strong endorsement of high standards and standards-based tests had made it one of the most stalwart supporters of the Common Core, another of Duncan’s priorities. The state provided $1.7-billion for schools to support their capacity to teach to the new standards and for the technology for on-line testing.

The new law doesn’t require state tests to be Common Core aligned. California is sticking with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing, but state superintendent Tom Torlakson has backed away from using the term “Common Core,” referring to “California’s high standards.”

Subgroup Results Continue

As in the old law, ESSA requires that states report student test results by subgroup, thus making it difficult for schools to hide low achievement by one group of students by averaging test scores. Making all students visible in school and district results is probably the most positive lasting effect of NCLB.

But under ESSA California will get much more latitude in how it report results, which schools are labeled as failing, and what sanctions are to be applied to them.

In a departure from NCLB that has been criticized by civil rights groups and those who designed the old law, states are required to intervene only in schools in the lowest five percent of performance and in high schools where the graduation rate is less than 67 percent. A coalition of civil rights and disability advocates offered a weak endorsement of ESSA only at the last minute.

However, California School Board President Michael Kirst said in an email response that California’s new financing program envisions a statewide accountability program that will extend to all schools, this in addition to the local plans.

California, like other states, would still have to submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education. But gone is the expectation to get all students to a standard labeled “proficient.” Under NCLB, all states were required to lift all groups of students to proficiency by 2014. None had, and the sanctions generated fell on truly terrible schools and those that were making respectable progress alike.

Local Goals

Instead of a menu of goals developed in Washington, under ESSA states can pick their own goals, both long and short term, so long as they address proficiency on tests, English language proficiency, and graduation rates. Goals for low performing subgroups are expected to narrow both performance and graduation rates.

The new law also follows California’s lead in requiring multiple indicators, including things like student engagement, access to challenging coursework, or school climate—all possibilities under the state’s eight priority systems. The LCAP process and the more lengthy experience of the CORE districts—Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana—give the state a leg up on the new requirements.

“The really exciting opportunity is that we could be looking at is to unify our accountability system,” said Glen Price, chief deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education. During the NCLB era, California schools were subject to two different measures, the federal Annual Yearly Progress and the state’s measure that predated the federal law, the Academic Progress Indicator. Frequently, a school would meet the goals on one measure but not the other.

Schools and districts were required to submit multiple plans to meet federal and state regulations, and Price hopes to be able to simplify the process connecting accountability and planning to the state’s Local Control Accountability Plans. Price said that he hopes that California’s unified planning process will lead the nation.

Flexible Spending Possible

One of the tangible benefits the state should receive is flexibility over how it spends approximately $400-million in supplemental educational services money that is now largely spent on externally provided tutoring.

What happens when schools don’t make satisfactory progress? California has delayed that discussion in favor of rebuilding its schools fiscally and introducing the local control finance and accountability systems.

A new organization, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, has begun organizing. Its first director, veteran superintendent and former state board of education member Carl Cohn, has signaled a dramatic departure from the past: “It’s designed to listen to people in the field and to bring them together around improvement. It also draws heavily on the principle of subsidiarity where those at the local level actually know better how to rescue kids that we care about.” Cohn announced four key staff hires on Tuesday.

There’s more than a little irony that Blue State Californians find themselves broadly in agreement with a state’s rights direction in education policy. “Who would have thought,” said Cohn.

Finally, ESSA also includes an early-childhood initiative that may help fund the California legislature’s instincts toward universal preschool. The preschool provision was the priority of Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking minority party member of the Senate panel.

The Devil’s In The Regulations

There’s lots of toasting to the passage of the new law. But ESSA contains manifold internal contradictions that have led to the conclusion that education lawyers will be the big winners as states wrestle with the feds over the apparently diminished powers of the Secretary of Education. As Kirst put it, “This is a constructive compromise concerning the balance of federal versus state control. But the federal regulations could increase federal control, so the devil may be in the details.”

Price said that the California Department of Education would monitor the regulations process carefully. Under the new law, states are to submit plans to the federal department by early 2017. Thus, the original set of regulations will most likely be written during the Obama administration’s tenure under acting Secretary John King, who replaces Duncan at the end of the month. And federal regulators have a tendency to regulate.

So, cheer at NCLB’s wake but not so loudly as to raise the dead.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.