Federal Opinion

ESSA Cements the K-12 Obama-Duncan Legacy

By Joanne Weiss — December 10, 2015 6 min read

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, is being hailed as a model of bipartisan legislative action. It’s also being touted as a repudiation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s authority and philosophy, a smack-down for federal intervention—the largest rollback of Washington’s authority in a generation.

So why did Secretary Duncan campaign enthusiastically to pass this bill, and why is President Barack Obama set to sign it with such fanfare?

The answer is simple: because it will codify into law so much of what the Obama administration has been fighting for throughout its seven years in office. Because once you get past some political language aiming to prevent the secretary or his successors from doing things they never would or could do, what remains is a framework driven significantly by Duncan’s approach and ideas.

Secretary Duncan has been working relentlessly since he took office seven years ago to get the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorized. As the former schools chief in Chicago, he had a pretty good idea of the problems with the law, Congress’ 2001 rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He’d been on the receiving end of federal rules that offered prescriptive fixes rather than room for creative problem-solving and, at the same time, perversely encouraged system leaders to lower standards to boost proficiency numbers.

[ESSA] will codify into law so much of what the Obama administration has been fighting for throughout its seven years in office."

As secretary of education, Duncan sought to flip the script, with a proposal that would make the law, as Duncan often said, “tight on goals but loose on means.” The administration put out a proposal to fix the law in 2010 and then spent time working with Congress to try to get it done.

As time marched on and reauthorization hopes faded, Duncan used the waiver authority granted under No Child Left Behind to shore up problems the outdated law was causing for states. His approach rested on the simple notion that there should be high expectations for the learning of every student, and action taken when groups of students or schools weren’t making progress.

The first pillar was high standards, aiming to reverse the slide under NCLB. Duncan supported incentives—never mandates—for states to adopt standards that prepare students for success in college-level work, for the demands of the workplace, and for the responsibilities of citizenship. He has argued that successful high school graduates shouldn’t get placed into remedial courses when they reach college and has encouraged states to raise their own standards. And to ensure that a state’s standards are aligned to this outcome, he developed a policy as part of waivers whereby states’ own higher education systems verified that their K-12 standards prepared students to meet the entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework.

A similar approach is now required by ESSA. And the fact that future federal departments of education cannot incentivize high standards—a fact getting so much attention in the press—is irrelevant now that Congress has required all states to adopt such standards. This is game-changing for students and educators.

But standards alone are not enough. It’s essential to know whether students are meeting those standards. Duncan has also been an adamant supporter of annual assessments that measure student learning. He has insisted that these assessments be of high quality, that they fully and accurately reflect states’ standards, and yet be only one of multiple metrics used to judge students’ learning. Under the administration’s waiver program, states were allowed to use measures beyond assessments in their accountability systems. ESSA embraces these policies.

[T]here has been more forward movement in state and district education policy in the past seven years than at any time since desegregation."

Duncan believed in actively empowering state education leaders to define their own approaches to improving outcomes, insisting that “the best ideas come from outside Washington.” The administration has repeatedly looked to states and districts for policies, programs, and innovations worthy of spotlighting, and it has offered states opportunities to receive funding to support those ideas. This concept was fundamental to the Race to the Top grant competition and was at the core of the waiver flexibility offered to states as the country inched closer to 2014 with no replacement of No Child Left Behind in sight.

The administration put forward a framework for states to use in designing accountability systems under the waiver policy—a framework designed to correct NCLB’s punishing overidentification of failing schools and one-size-fits-all cascade of interventions.

That framework provided states with unprecedented flexibility, but asked them to focus on their neediest schools by identifying and turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high school dropout factories, and schools with egregious achievement gaps. Under waivers, states were required to intervene when there was no improvement at the district level. This is the accountability framework enshrined in ESSA, and it’s derived directly from the administration’s principles.

In addition, ESSA recognizes the power of new types of policymaking and competitive grants to drive improvement, establishing programs that look very much like a variety of Duncan’s innovation and incentive funds. It includes a program to make local funding formulas more equitable that looks a lot like a weighted-student-funding proposal in President Obama’s 2016 budget. And, consistent with another of Duncan’s priorities, the new law embraces funding for preschool quality and access through a program jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, but residing within HHS.

None of this is to say that I believe ESSA is the law Duncan would have written himself. I am sure Duncan would have preferred more proactive policies around supporting a highly effective professional workforce. But this is an issue that states and localities will inevitably continue to work on, and the law does preserve a requirement for plans to ensure equity in the assignment of strong teachers to high-need schools.

It’s true that ESSA contains a number of highly political, headline-grabbing restrictions on the federal secretary’s authority. The prohibitions in ESSA were clearly included as a direct response to the current secretary’s activist stance. Limiting some of the U.S. Department of Education’s ability to exercise professional judgment is likely to appear, in retrospect, as shortsighted and flawed, especially in times when political gridlock makes legislative inaction the norm.

Yet the impact of these provisions has been overstated. The law allows the department to implement the law and hold states accountable for serving students. In the end, that’s what matters the most.

In the past seven years, sweeping changes in pre-K-12 public education have happened, and most have found their place in the Every Student Succeeds Act, making them permanent parts of any future education landscape. Expectations have been raised for all students, thanks to the requirement for challenging academic standards. Annual assessments of student learning have dramatically improved in quality. Policymakers and educators are working hard to turn around persistently failing schools. New initiatives promise to help many more preschoolers get off to a good start. And new models for innovative policymaking have been added to state and federal toolkits.

There is a great deal of work left to do to ensure every student gets the shot he or she deserves, but there has been more forward movement in state and district education policy in the past seven years than at any time since desegregation. That is a legacy that Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration can be proud of.

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