When the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law two years ago, leaders from both sides of the aisle hailed it as a rare and remarkable display of bipartisanship. The measure represented a significant rollback of the federal government’s footprint in education policy and the dawn of a new era of state autonomy. Both of us see the new law as an opportunity for states to sidestep the gridlock that has overwhelmed Washington and to take charge in determining a new path forward.
We have been watching the action closely in states, and there’s no point in sugarcoating: ESSA has gotten off to a rocky start. Turnover in leadership at both the federal and state levels wasn’t a surprise, but complicated matters. In many states—including the states where we helped shape education policy, North Carolina and Indiana—the process of drafting new accountability plans surfaced tensions among the multiple entities responsible for putting the new law into effect.
In spite of this turmoil, states—to their credit—have come to the table to fix things with a sense of urgency. Every state has now submitted an ESSA plan. Some have already been approved,and it shouldn’t be long now before the rest follow suit.
One of us (Dale Chu) examined important aspects of state ESSA plans as part of an independent peer review that highlighted what these plans got right (including broadening accountability beyond test scores), as well as what they got wrong. Specifically, too many failed to provide details about how their systems would address the performance of students, especially those that are too often marginalized by society. It is not wrong to lament the yawning performance gaps that persist between American students and our international competitors or the gaps between affluent students and their low-income peers. States can and must do better, but they can’t do it alone. The key question in the coming weeks and months is this: How can we—as parents, educators, and concerned citizens—support states to optimize their success?
There’s no point in sugarcoating: ESSA has gotten off to a rocky start."
The answer rests outside the Beltway. With the federal government signaling its intent to take a more laissez-faire approach to enforcing these plans, the responsibility is on all of us to help provide capacity that state departments of education may not currently have. Together, we must work with state leaders to ensure these ESSA plans are specific about how to support low-performing schools and to pick up the pace when it comes to ensuring every student is adequately prepared.
For example, ESSA provides states an opportunity to empower parents and communities by improving how education data are publicly reported. Will state report cards now be easier to understand? Easier to find? Will the data be up-to-date? Historically, the answers to these questions would have been a resounding no. While state education chiefs have shown steadfast leadership on ESSA at a time of unprecedented funding and staffing pressures, ordinary citizens need to be proactive in offering their assistance and input as these plans are implemented.
We believe states are serious about their obligation to improve education and increase equity. But given the current political climate, they will need more tools and supports if we want to see a positive outcome out of this new law. In the meantime, the jury is out as to whether ESSA will be a step forward when it comes to accountability, or a retreat to the days when stark racial and wealth gaps were largely hidden from view.
While the law gives states greater flexibility in designing accountability systems and determining performance measures, some states continue to place a heavy focus on proficiency and results on statewide assessments. States should continue to revise these systems to reflect more adequately the role of student growth and other measures that give a much broader picture of students’ career, college, and citizenship readiness.
With no rest for the weary, the next major hurdle is already upon us, as many state legislative sessions are currently meeting, or will soon. In some states where the governor and the state education agency did not see eye to eye on their state ESSA plan—such as Louisiana and Maryland—there has been a brewing desire to undo or ratchet back what’s in these ESSA plans, in which case all bets may be off. It will be in the face of these headwinds that states must stand firm for their students. As former state education officials, we both know this will not be easy, but we also know what’s possible when courageous leadership is coupled with a shared vision for educational equity, excellence, and opportunity.