In theory, the Every Student Succeeds Act is a lot better than what it replaces. Whether this new federal education law heralds “a new era of innovation and excellence,” as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said, is another matter.
By moving responsibility for education back to the state level, the law eases the way for policies that will lead to real progress. But, as history shows, just shifting authority from one level of government to another is no guarantee that teaching or learning will improve.
In the 1980s, schools were struggling with the challenges of inequality and student diversity. States stepped in with so-called “corporate” reforms: accountability, metrics, and competition. Policymakers looked for replicable—or “scalable"—programs and teaching methods that would raise test scores.
The overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that Congress passed in 2001, also known as No Child Left Behind, was essentially a federalized version of state laws from Florida and Texas. As with the state laws, NCLB assumed that reform was something smarter higher-ups should impose on feckless subordinates. Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s 2009 education initiative, perpetuated its approach.
The result: an overemphasis on uniform practices in many schools and even less progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than during the pre-NCLB era.
Top-down reform doesn’t work, regardless of who is at the top. Instead, it has reflected a disconnect between policymakers and practitioners and failed to solve underlying problems like the wide variation in teacher quality. Too often, it has gotten in the way of schools’ educating children well.
ESSA, the successor to No Child Left Behind, is an opportunity to move in a new direction, to break the old all-or-nothing cycle of centralization or decentralization. The question is: Will policymakers use this opportunity wisely?
In our education system, each level of authority has its special role. Local capacity and local values largely determine what actually works in schools and classrooms. States see problems and may propose responses the locals can’t. Washington can promote equity and provide resources that are beyond the fiscal or managerial capacity of states and localities.
States are now in a position to move beyond yesterday’s top-down policies and to create an unprecedented kind of collaboration that’s essential for real school improvement. To do that, they must foster—and Washington must support—an ongoing, authentic dialogue across all three levels that respects the strengths and wisdom of each one.
This dialogue must start with the understanding that there’s no single education problem in America. What works depends heavily on what is at the local level. Instead of acting as if all schools were failing and could be improved by the same strategies, policies must recognize the differences among them. The very best policies will enhance the distinctiveness and originality of every school and its surrounding community.
It’s been hard to devise plans to embody these understandings. The Common Core State Standards and similar compendia of 21st-century skills and concepts are inadequate. So what should the future look like?
The ultimate goal of education is still to enable students to succeed in the global marketplace. But helping students become contributing citizens in a vibrant democracy and fulfilled human beings is even more important.
To achieve that goal, it’s essential to improve classroom instruction—the most critical in-school factor in student learning, according to research. Children flourish in the care of well-educated mentors who know how they think and have the empathy and skill to inspire them.
High-quality professional development is essential if we are to foster as many excellent teachers as possible. ESSA gives the states tremendous latitude in how they pursue that objective.
Will policymakers use this opportunity wisely?
Periodic lectures, occasional presentations, one-shot workshops, prescribed curricula, and “cookbook instruction,” such as so-called scripted teaching, are relatively easy and cheap, but they don’t produce excellence. Instead, we need to improve and expand robust clinical programs that include ongoing “critical friends” and lesson-study groups, where practitioners observe and discuss one another’s work.
Quality clinical education depends on significant professional expertise. It also has to be deeply embedded and supported on the ground. States can’t mandate that kind of quality, but they can provide resources, including technical and human assistance, that are essential to it.
In this and other ways, states can be true partners with individual school districts. In conjunction with the third partner—the federal government—they are also well positioned to take on important unfinished work. Immediate priorities should include:
- Creating incentives to attract talent to teaching;
- Supporting and, especially, disseminating research;
- Developing and diversifying assessments schools can use to improve learning;
- Conducting minimally invasive testing for accountability;
- Ensuring that public charter and regular public schools compete on a level field;
- Creating and supporting school and university networks to improve practice; and
- Rethinking requirements for the time devoted to professional education, student seat time, and academic credit.
Finally, it’s essential to address the impact of inequity. The most optimistic estimates say that schools and teachers are responsible for about 20 percent of children’s academic performance; other estimates are even lower. Out-of-school factors such as poverty account for the rest. According to “For Each and Every Child,” a 2013 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, “although U.S. children in low-poverty schools rank at the top of the world, those in our highest-poverty schools are performing on a par with children in the world’s lowest-achieving countries.”
To offset the effects of economic disparity and discrimination, the federal and state governments must invest in health, nutrition, and other wraparound support services that promote children’s physical and emotional health, as well as in outreach that engages families and invites fragmented communities to join with educators in a virtuous circle of achievement. Moreover, there’s been growing consensus on the need for changes to funding, assessment, and early-childhood education.
The next—and huge—step is to answer some key questions: What funding is adequate? Where will it come from? What kinds of assessment are necessary and appropriate? What will ensure that early-childhood education is of high quality and has lasting impact? Who will be responsible for doing what?
There are deep differences over many of these issues, and the devil is in the details. Intelligent resolutions will evolve only out of thoughtful give-and-take among the partners.
Lamar Alexander has a point that “the path to higher standards, better teaching, and real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C.” But truth doesn’t reside in Albany, N.Y.; Augusta, Maine; or Austin, Texas, any more than it does in the nation’s capital. If every child is to fulfill her or his potential as a citizen, worker, and human being, we have to move beyond the cycles of reform and counter-reform that have driven school practice for at least a century.
States are now in a position to facilitate cooperation between, and coordinate their own efforts with, localities and Capitol Hill. They can devise policies and direct resources to specifically target the needs of individual schools and to foster innovation that’s rooted in the wisdom of the educators, parents, and students who are in the field.
If policymakers and local educators cooperate wholeheartedly and maximize their respective strengths, they will go a long way toward realizing ESSA’s potential.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Making the Most of ESSA