For the past quarter century, federal education policy has been moving in one direction: toward standards-based education redesign, a greater reliance on standardized tests, and bigger role for Washington when it comes to holding schools accountable for student results.
President Barack Obama reversed course with the stroke of a pen Thursday, putting states and districts back at the wheel when it comes to teacher evaluation, standards, school turnarounds, and accountability, through a new iteration of the five-decade old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Before signing the legislation, Obama said the Every Student Succeeds Act “builds on the reforms that have helped us make so much progress already.”
“This bill upholds the core value that animated the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the value that says education, the key to economic opportunity, is a civil right,” Obama said.
He said that while the authors of the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous iteration of ESEA, were well-intentioned, “In practice it often fell short” and led to too much time spent on testing, among other problems. And while his administration offered NCLB waivers, he said, “The truth is, that could only do so much.”
“For years, I have called on Congress to come together and get a bipartisan effort to fix No Child Left Behind,” Obama said. “This is really a good example of how bipartisanship can work.”
Obama praised the law for, among other things, focusing on putting students on track to be ready for college and career.
The new law coasted through Congress on a wave of bipartisan, bicameral support, and has been enthusiastically embraced by teachers’ unions, governors, state chiefs, and principals. It even got a measured endorsement from the civil rights community.
ESSA retains key tenets of the law it is replacing, the decayed No Child Left Behind Act, calling on states and districts to focus on helping flailing schools and those where traditionally overlooked groups of students are struggling.
And even though it would stick with NCLB’s annual testing schedule, ESSA directs states to incorporate a broader mix of factors into their accountability systems, such as teacher engagement and success in advanced coursework. (More on the ins-and-outs of the bill here.)
Before Obama signed ESSA, his administration put out “A Progress Report on Elementary and Secondary Education” that touts the improvement of public schools and K-12 policy on his watch. In addition to calling attention to the nation’s all-time high graduation rate of 81 percent and historic lows in the dropout rate (more on that here), the report highlights Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation program, and various teacher initiatives that began on Obama’s watch.
The legislation is “a wonderful accomplishment, especially given the ideological chasm in the Congress,” said Jack Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee for nearly three decades, where he worked on previous versions of the ESEA. “The federal government overstepped its bounds, and it got a smackdown from Congress.”
But now, there’s a need for a new direction. That, Jennings said, is where ESSA is largely silent. “Where are we going to go? I don’t think the [law] answers that at all.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the lead architects of ESSA, doesn’t see it that way. The legislation, he said in a quick interview after Senate passage Wednesday, makes it clear that the new vision for K-12 is going to come from the states, not Washington.
“What it means is that governors and school boards and teachers can immediately begin to plan and make their own decisions about the design of their tests, how many tests, what their academic standards ought to be, all of the basic decisions about student achievement,” he said. “It basically reverses the trend toward a national school board and will unleash a new of era of innovation and excellence.”
Different factions of the education community are already gearing up to help states and districts bring that new era forward—preferably in a way that works for them.
The National Education Association, for instance, will be working with its affiliates across the country to help states craft accountability systems that move beyond what the union’s president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia calls the “test and punish” regime of NCLB.
And both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers would love to see states move beyond teacher evaluations that rely heavily on test scores, a key feature of the Obama administration’s waivers from portions of the NCLB law.
“The way tests were used in teacher evaluation ... it became lunacy,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told reporters in advance of Senate passage of ESSA.
Meanwhile, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights will be helping its partners figure out how they help local and state leaders maintain the ESEA’s historic focus on equity for traditionally overlooked groups of students in this new version.
To be sure, there’s still plenty to puzzle over inside the Beltway. The new law includes a laundry list of prohibitions on the education secretary’s authority when it comes to setting standards, measuring teacher performance, and more.
That crackdown is largely aimed at Obama’s education chief, Arne Duncan, who flexed his executive muscle more than any education secretary in history through NCLB waivers. It’s unclear whether the language will make it harder politically—or even legally—for the department to take a hard line in regulating on the law.
That could impact how the administration chooses to fill in the blanks on some key issues, including how much academic factors must count relative to other indicators, like school climate. (One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the department has the authority it needs to enforce ESSA.)
Legacy of ESEA
But if ESSA is ambiguous, that puts it squarely in the tradition of its great-granddaddy, the original ESEA of 1965, said Mike Kirst, who worked on implementation of the very first version of the law during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
Kirst and his colleagues in what was then called the Office of Education waded through a host of sticky issues, including how to make sure that the new federal Title I funds were targeted to the students most in need, not everyone. And ultimately, they were told they’d overstepped their bounds and had to “slenderize” the regulations.
ESEA has a “long history where you pit an aggressive federal approach against” the need for state flexibility, he said.
And Kirst who is now president of the California State Board of Education, wouldn’t mind if the department erred on the side of leeway for states this time around. “I’m at the bottom looking up now and wanting to preserve flexibility,” he said.
The Golden State is one of just a handful that didn’t participate in the Obama administration’s waiver program. (It couldn’t get on board with Duncan’s teacher-evaluation vision.)
Kirst is happy to be shrugging off NCLB for good, and especially to be gaining access to federal money that the state has had to set aside for the law’s mandatory interventions—school choice and tutoring—which he saw as largely ineffective.
But ESSA may not be a breeze to implement. Kirst is already scratching his head over one new requirement borrowed from the Obama administration’s waivers that states turn around their bottom 5 percent of schools. In California, that would mean about 500 low-performers—a tall order for the state education agency, in Kirst’s view.
For state officials, embracing ESSA represents “a huge time and conceptual burden,” he said. “But it feels to be a step in the right direction, so at least you’re swimming with the tide.”