Opinion
Every Student Succeeds Act Commentary

ESSA Is an Opportunity for States

By Jack Markell — January 24, 2017 4 min read

After 14 years of No Child Left Behind—a federal education law that brought needed attention to underserved students across the country, but became increasingly out of touch with classroom realities—states are ready for changes under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Under ESSA, states can choose their own measures of progress for student learning aligned to their visions of what education should look like. In the wake of final federal regulations for accountability released in November, deadlines are approaching for states to submit their proposals to the U.S. Department of Education for how they will hold schools accountable under the law. These accountability plans must show how states will implement academic standards aligned to help students stay on track for success in college and the workplace; ensure students from all backgrounds have an equal footing; track progress of schools across a variety of measures not limited to test scores; and identify ways to offer additional support where students are struggling.

ESSA Is an Opportunity for States: Former Delaware governor Jack Markell weighs in on how states should respond to the shifting federal education landscape.

Educators and policymakers have known since ESSA became law in December 2015 that a decrease of federal authority to influence policies like accountability systems and teacher evaluation would place more responsibility on states to make good decisions. However, the unprecedented presidential-election outcome puts even more pressure on states than we could have imagined just a few months ago. The Trump administration is likely to favor maximum flexibility for states to develop plans and set policy under ESSA.

The new law is an opportunity, not an inevitability. It is more vital than ever before to acknowledge that states’ rights have not always been synonymous with equitable treatment of all students. To realize the promise of flexibility, states will need to take more seriously their obligations to ensure that the students who need the most help—students of color, foster children, English-language learners, students in poverty, and first-generation students—get the resources and attention they deserve.

States, led by governors, legislators, state chiefs, and state boards of education, need to take advantage of this moment. Current accountability systems don’t include the measures of programs and resources we know students need. And if they remain in place, we won’t realize the true promise of ESSA, which is a return to locally tailored solutions and state-led progress in education.

How should states respond?

The new law is an opportunity, not an inevitability."

Student success depends on a wide range of factors—from quality early-childhood education, to high academic standards and access to rigorous coursework, to social-emotional learning. Yet, for more than a decade, states have focused almost exclusively on math- and reading-test scores as ways to measure school and student progress. While teachers and school leaders have worked hard to offer their students a well-rounded education, the incentives in their states’ accountability systems have gone too far in pushing educators to teach to the tests.

Academic progress, including growth measured by assessments and graduation rates, must remain a core part of accountability systems to make sure states measure how all students are doing, and are able to intervene before it’s too late. In addition, schools may now be held accountable for indicators beyond academics, such as social-emotional development or access to rigorous coursework. This could be a game-changer for many students.

In Delaware, where I served two terms as governor, our political leaders, administrators, educators, advocates, and others have spent the past eight years advancing initiatives to better prepare our students to learn and succeed after high school. Through new state budget investments and the hard work of teachers, as well as school and district leaders, we’ve expanded opportunity for thousands of children from birth through college.

The state has increased the proportion of low-income children in high-quality early-childhood programs from 5 percent to 70 percent. About 3,000 elementary students statewide are participating in new dual-language programs to become proficient in Spanish or Mandarin by the 4th grade. And we have more than 6,000 high school students gaining work experience in growing fields for college credit while still in high school.

Support for these initiatives is shared broadly by educators and policymakers across the state, but such programs have yet to be represented in our state accountability and school-support structures. We have not yet recognized that an hour spent on career and technical education, civics, or music is as valuable as an hour spent on math or reading, and that expanding access to high-quality early-childhood programs is a valid intervention for a struggling elementary school.

State leaders must bring together teachers, principals, parents, and civil rights groups to craft a shared vision for accountability systems and decide on key priorities and goals.

Increased federal intervention under No Child Left Behind was prompted by a lengthy record of states not taking full responsibility for educating all of their students. States must now take advantage of a new opportunity to show that local control doesn’t mean a lowering the bar for success, but rather more rigor and more innovation with locally designed solutions that support every student.

We must rise to the challenge and not allow a return to a time when state policies left many children behind. Our students are depending on us.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as How ESSA Could Change Education for the Better

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