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ESSA Can Help States Offer a Well-Rounded Education, John King Says

By Alyson Klein — April 14, 2016 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. is hoping states, districts and schools use their newfound flexibility in the Every Students Succeeds Act to move beyond reading and math scores to focus on science, social studies, the arts, physical education, and more.

“I count myself among those who worry that the balance has shifted too much away from subjects outside of math and English that could be the spark to a child’s interest and excitement, and are actually essential to success in reading, and are critical to a child’s future,” King plans to say in a speech at the Las Vegas Academy of Art Thursday.

King, like many others, chalks this up to the previous version of the law—the No Child Left Behind Act—focusing heavily on reading and math tests, even though he doesn’t think that the architects of NCLB meant for that to happen.

But if schools want to prepare students for the jobs of the future, King plans to say, they’ll need to move beyond stressing just those two subjects.

“Music and art, world languages, physics, chemistry, and biology; social studies civics and geography, and government; physical education and health ... these aren’t luxuries that are nice to have. They’re what it means to be ready for today’s world,” King plans to say.

ESSA Connection

ESSA include lots of opportunities for states and districts to embrace subjects beyond just reading and math, King told reporters Wednesday. For instance, the new law authorizes the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, a big block grant that districts can use to bolster arts education and make sure students are safe and healthy, among several options. (The Obama administration asked for $500 million for this program in its budget. That’s double what the programs are getting now, but it’s only about a third of what’s suggested in ESSA, making some lawmakers pretty cranky.)

What’s more, states could incorporate scores on science, social studies, or other assessments into their accountability plans, as well as access to advanced coursework in those subjects. Or they could include access to arts education, foreign language courses, or STEM education in rating schools.

If states and districts decide to take such steps, they’re likely to reap big benefits, King, a former social studies teacher, plans to say.

“There’s evidence that kids get better at math when they’ve taken classes that make the connection between STEM and the arts - and that when they’ve had certain courses in the arts kids can grow in self-confidence and linguistic skills, as well as in creativity,” he plans to say. “And the benefits of bilingualism for brain development show up as early as seven months old!”

Obama Legacy

The Obama administration has put in place initiatives to bolster STEM and arts education, but so far, a key aspect of its legacy on K-12 seems to be teacher evaluation through student outcomes on, well, reading and math tests.

How does that square with King’s rhetoric?

King noted that yes, the politics of teacher evaluation have focused intensely on the role of reading and math tests. But he thinks the department has always had a broader view when it comes to teacher performance ratings.

And he noted that the department’s waivers from the NCLB law gave states an opening to go beyond reading and math. But he added, “ESSA really creates a great opportunity for states to look at this question.” He said he’s hit the well-rounded education theme with state chiefs and state board members “so this isn’t a new topic for me and I know it’s something that [former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] cared about as well.”

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