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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Spin Patrol: How Various Groups Are Claiming Victory

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 10, 2015 7 min read
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You know you’re looking at a bipartisan, compromise bill when everyone rushes the field after the final touchdown, claims partial credit for the win, and then proceeds to explain What This All Means Going Forward (from their perspective, of course).

Nearly everyone from the bill’s sponsors—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, R-Va., on down—agrees that the latest, hot-off-the-presses edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, is a very good piece of legislation, but also not what they would have written on their own.

The bill, which passed the House Dec. 2, and the Senate Dec. 9, seeks to walk a pretty fine line.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, does include language calling for stronger accountability for underperforming students and schools than was in either the House or Senate’s original ESEA rewrites. ESSA also keeps the annual testing requirements for grades 3-8 and in high school.

But at the same time, it rolls back the federal role in K-12 for the first time in a quarter century and shifts big decisions on school turnarounds, standards, accountability, and more to states and districts.

So which of those two goals is really at the heart of the bill? Depends on who you talk to.

Organizations focused on the state level were quick to applaud the bill’s passage. They praised the transfer of education policy power that ESSA would facilitate.

“This legislation is essential to bringing stability to federal education law, and wiping away the unpredictability of operating waiver to waiver,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, referring to the end of No Child Left Behind Act waivers through ESSA.

And the National Governors Association, which gave ESSA its first full endorsement of any federal legislation in two decades, said the bill “marks a rare and significant bipartisan win.”

Alexander has been quick to tout NGA’s endorsement in particular to support his view that ESSA represents the first time education policy power has shifted away from Washington. He stressed this point on the Senate floor before the Dec. 9 vote in part by saying, “Too much Washington involvement causes a backlash.”

For a visual perspective, here’s a cloud of the most frequently used words from the CCSSO, the NGA, and the National Association of State Boards of Education statements on ESSA passing Congress. (We took out several words such as “the” and “is” from the cloud in order to highlight others.) “Bipartisan” and “state” feature prominently.

Local advocates were also quick to laud the bill.

“Reauthorization is critical to providing the nation’s schools with relief from the current law, which is both broken and lacking in the flexibility states and local school districts need to support student learning and achievement. Though not perfect, ESSA represents a strong step in the right direction because it restores a more proper balance on all levels,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

And the National School Boards Association praised the bill’s “new federalism” through recalibrating the power held by Washington, states, and districts. ESSA reflects “a strong national interest to restore local governance and community ownership in public education,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas Gentzel.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has its own take, with its own emphases.

We tackled how the bill handles U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his preferred policies in a story published last week. The U.S. Department of Education has highlighted how ESSA enshrines Duncan’s work by requiring a focus by states on the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, expanding early-childhood education, and preventing “portability” for federal Title I funds, a school choice provision that was included in the House ESEA reauthorization bill.

“It is a compromise that builds on the work already underway in states to raise expectations for students and to help them graduate college- and career-ready. The bill reflects many of the priorities we’ve put forward over the last six and a half years,” Duncan said in a Dec. 3 statement.

And rather than highlight a transfer of power to states, Scott stressed in his own post-passage statement that ESSA “affirms the principles of Brown v. Board of Education” in part by the requirements it puts on states regarding testing, standards, and accountability. For example, Scott said that the bill “requires meaningful state and local action in every school where students—or any subgroup of students—aren’t learning.”

“We were able to work together to advance student-centered policy solutions that both fulfill the ESEA’s civil rights legacy and move public education forward,” Scott said.

Want a word cloud from the Duncan and Scott statements? Here it is:

You didn’t think we were going to forget about common core, did you?

Duncan and the Education Department may have been fans of the Common Core State Standards. But in a Dec. 9 statement, the Collaborative for Student Success, another common-core supporter, said that ESSA does all other common-core backers a big favor: "[I]t forever ends what has long been an Achilles Heel of Common Core: federal entanglement through Race to the Top and secretarial waivers in state decisions surrounding the adoption of standards and the selection of aligned assessments.”

The bill does not prohibit the common core. But it does bar future education secretaries from incentivizing or otherwise encouraging states to adopt any particular set of content standards. That’s a clear shot at Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, which did not explicitly require the common core but were seen by many as vehicles the department used to support the standards. So the Education Department may have helped out common-core supporters in the past, but now they appear happy to have Congress take federal pressure and inducements in these matters off the table.

And what about the two national teachers’ unions? For her part, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, is pinching herself with joy over language that would allow states and districts to scale back their reliance on tests in favor of other factors.

“We will see the end of test and punish,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We will see the end of hit your cut score or somebody gets punished.”

In statements after ESSA passed the Senate 85-12, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers spiked the football over what they said was their victory over punitive testing policies. Why are they celebrating? In short, ESSA allows states to set their own goals with respect to test scores, does not contain a federal mandate regarding teacher evaluations, and could broadly reduce the overall impact of assessments in states’ accountability systems.

The AFT, for example, said in its post-passage statement that ESSA is “slamming the door on federally prescribed high-stakes consequences of testing,” even though it isn’t a perfect bill.

“For years, educators, parents and members of our broader communities were the canaries in the coal mine, crying out that hypertesting was hurting students, demoralizing teachers and frustrating parents,” the AFT said in its statement.

But not everyone agrees that testing took a major hit in the legislation.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of Third Way, a Washington think tank, had a different take. “I think the bill is a huge loss for testing opponents. If there was any time that [annual tests] were going to be undone, it’s right now,” she said in an interview.

And in a statement released after the House approved ESSA, the Education Trust stressed that the bill not only keeps the requirement for annual assessments in place, but includes “gap-closing goals for student outcomes, ratings based on the progress of all students and each group of students, and the expectation of action when any group of students is consistently underperforming.”

In the statement, Education Trust President Kati Haycock didn’t try to sell ESSA as a clear touchdown for her side, but did claim some wins for education as a national civil rights issue: “In the battle between adult interests and those of the children who are at the heart of why the federal government is involved in education, each side won some skirmishes.”

Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.