One year ago, President Barack Obama and longtime education leaders in Congress burst through years of deadlock to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, the first update to the nation’s main K-12 law in over a decade.
Now the law remains a work in progress, as states, districts, and a shifting cast of federal officials work furiously to prepare for its full rollout this fall.
ESSA’s architects said the law struck a careful compromise. On the one side, it moved away from what they saw as the worst aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act—the previous version of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act—including what many deemed an overemphasis on standardized tests and a too-heavy federal footprint. At the same time, it kept key safeguards for historically overlooked groups of students.
But as the new law passes its first birthday, it’s an open question whether ESSA will be able to maintain that balance once it hits state education agencies, district central offices, and classrooms in full force in the 2017-18 school year.
ESSA gives states and districts greater flexibility, but it also asks a lot of them.
Instead of relying primarily on test results to gauge school performance, as policy officials did under No Child Left Behind, states must use a jumble of measures, including test scores, graduation rates, and at least one factor that gets at school quality or student success, such as school climate or achievement in advanced coursework.
And states can move away from teacher evaluations based on student test scores and come up with their own definitions for what makes a teacher effective. States and districts also get to decide how to intervene in their lowest-performing schools and those where long-overlooked groups—such as students of color, English-language learners, and children with disabilities—aren’t performing up to snuff.
As part of a nationwide survey, Education Week asked district leaders to indicate the extent to which they agree with six statements related to ESSA. Roughly one-third of survey respondents said they “completely agree” that their districts will be using students’ test scores to help evaluate teachers two years from now. Only 9 percent agreed that leaders in their districts have had sufficient impact on their states’ ESSA implementation plans.
Source: Education Week Research Center, 2017
“Given the range of state capacity, and states’ different K-12 priorities, ESSA implementation could look radically different on the ground from one state to the next,” said Maria Voles Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a public education advocacy group at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of different stories told throughout the country,” said Ferguson, who served in the U.S. Department of Education working on K-12 policy and communications under President Bill Clinton. “There are bright-shining-star [states] that are going to run and do really interesting things, and then there’ll be some sad, not-great stories. It’s a little bit of survival of the fittest.”
For their part, state education chiefs recognize the challenges ahead, but say they welcome the opportunity to move toward what they hope will be more-nuanced accountability systems that present a clearer picture of student progress. And they know that the greater leeway may not be around forever.
“If we just use the flexibility to get out of things and not serve kids better, we’re going to be right back here soon with more federal prescription,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Meanwhile, President-elect Donald Trump’s upset victory in November has muddied the waters at the federal level.
For one thing, the Obama administration has spent the past year crafting regulations that flesh out ESSA’s accountability, testing, and spending provisions.
But it’s unclear how much of that work will end up influencing the law’s direction in the long run. The incoming Trump administration will get to decide whether to delay, tweak, or toss those regulations.
For now, state chiefs say they are not waiting for Trump and his pick for education secretary, school choice advocate Betsy DeVos, to put their stamp on the law.
Instead, states are pressing forward with their own ESSA blueprints, honed in many cases after months of outreach, multiple listening tours, and hours of meetings.
Education Week asked district leaders how much of a priority the ESSA transition will be for their districts during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. One-third of district leaders responding to a September 2016 survey reported that it would be a high priority in the 2016-17 school year. A larger share (45%) said it will be a high priority in 2017-18.
Source: Education Week Research Center, 2017
For instance, Virginia is leaning toward a plan that incorporates chronic absenteeism alongside test scores in gauging school performance, said Steven Staples, the state superintendent of public instruction. And he’d like to see the new system take stock of whether schools are closing the achievement gaps that have often left minority students, those with disabilities, and other groups lagging behind.
But some sticky issues still must be worked through, Staples said. For instance, the state will need to decide how to figure out whether a school is truly helping struggling students improve, or if the top students are simply slipping.
And more generally, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires a shift in mindset for states, districts, and schools, said Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction.
Under No Child Left Behind, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, “our accountability systems really were designed to give us information about how well schools and school districts were playing the accountability game, and gave us very little information about how our students were really doing,” Balow said. “We’re trying as a state to really close that gap between accountability for compliance and accountability for responsibility” for student learning, she said.
And the question that loomed over the celebrations hailing ESSA’s passage in December 2015 remains: What will more state control mean for historically overlooked groups of students?
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, recalled that when ESSA became law, an influential civil rights leader in his state tweeted that he’d lived through states’ rights and it hadn’t worked out very well, a reference to segregation.
“I took that to heart, I took it as a personal obligation” to make equity for all groups a central tenet of Wisconsin’s plan, Evers said.
Civil rights advocates are heartened by such sentiments, but caution that states have a lot of decisions left to make.
“We’re still kind of in the thick of it,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates in support of poor and minority students. “There’s a lot of conversation going on right now, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can definitively say here’s where that conversation is leading us, for good, bad, or other.”
Hall said civil rights advocates should keep an eye on where ESSA implementation stands in their states.
“We have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners,” she said. “If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population.”
Teachers’ unions are also working to make sure their members are at the table helping to craft state accountability plans.
“We are hopeful that states have not dug in on ESSA,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, the National Education Association’s director of policy and practice. The union and its affiliates, she said, have been telling state education officials: “Don’t go off into a room somewhere in the back and build a plan. … Don’t wait until you have a final draft of a plan before you reach out to your stakeholders. Make sure you’ve really gotten buy-in by the time you’re done building your plan.”
School Choice Twist
Even though the Trump administration will eventually be consumed with approving states’ ESSA plans, the president-elect has suggested that expanding school choice could be his initial focus in education policy.
Some of Trump’s campaign proposals—like redirecting $20 billion in federal funding to help students attend the private, public, or home school of their choice—would likely require renegotiating the portion of ESSA that deals with the formula for distributing Title I dollars to states and districts.
But plenty of opportunities for expanding school choice are already written into the law, said Lindsay Fryer, who worked as an education aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, when Congress was writing ESSA.
For instance, states can reserve up to 3 percent of their Title I dollars and channel it to such purposes as public school choice, distance learning, personalized learning, tutoring, and Advanced Placement coursetaking.
Already under ESSA, “choice can be utilized in a broader sense than where we hear the rhetoric now,” said Fryer, who is now a vice-president at the Penn Hill Group, a government relations firm in Washington.
And overall, she said, ESSA offers states a chance to shift their thinking.
“States have so long been in compliance mode, the bureaucratic back-and-forth of, ‘Can I do science tests this way?’ ” Fryer said. “Now is the opportunity for states to figure out what they want to do,” she said. “States will learn a lot from each other as these plans move forward.”