Congress Approves Historic Bill to Create Greater Opportunities for Students to Succeed
“We applaud Congress for getting the job done—passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and doing what is right for students, teachers, and public education,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen. “ESSA represents a new beginning for students who have suffered too long under Connecticut’s failed policies of top-down reform and a broken system where excessive test prep and standardized testing rules the classroom.”
The U.S. Senate today passed ESSA after it passed the House last week. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law tomorrow. Read CEA’s news release here.
“ESSA gives students new opportunities, support, tools, and time to learn,” said Cohen.
The bipartisan bill reauthorizes the federal education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The most recent version of ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind, was signed into law by President Bush in 2002.
Efforts by the U.S. Department of Education to waive certain NCLB requirements placed numerous, onerous demands on states and shifted even more focus to test scores and away from student-centered learning.
ESSA provides new areas of state authority and the opportunity for teachers to advocate for new state laws and guidelines that enhance teaching and learning.
The bill allows for a reduction in the amount of standardized testing in schools and, most importantly, permits the decoupling of high-stakes decision-making and statewide standardized tests so that students have more time to learn and teachers have more time to teach. ESSA also begins to close opportunity gaps confronting students by providing a new accountability system that includes—for the first time—indicators of opportunity and student support.
Here is a brief overview of ESSA’s provisions and opportunities.
Federal Department of Education Oversight
Under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, states had to implement radical reforms in order to obtain federal funding or a waiver from some requirements of NCLB. ESSA specifically limits the powers of the secretary and the role of the U.S. Department of Education in state and local decisions affecting schools.
In order to receive a waiver from NCLB, states (including Connecticut) had to adopt federally prescribed educator evaluation systems. ESSA specifically prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from prescribing “any aspect of or parameter of a teacher, principal, or other school leader evaluation system” in the future. This is a positive step toward making educator evaluation more effective and meaningful. However, Connecticut state law and agency guidelines still include radical provisions—to meet previous federal requirements—that are roadblocks to high-quality teaching and learning.
“Teachers and students have lived with the unintended and failed consequences of NCLB for too long. In order to change course in Connecticut, it will be incumbent on Connecticut’s dedicated teachers to do what we have always done—wage a mobilization and advocacy campaign on behalf of our students to urge position changes to state education policies,” said Cohen.
Challenging state academic standards
Adopting a national set of Common Core State Standards is no longer required in order to obtain federal dollars. Instead, ESSA requires states to adopt “challenging state academic standards” in, at a minimum, English, math, and science. Consequently, states can exercise more freedom in adopting their own unique standards. This is an opportunity for teachers across the state to address the appropriateness of the current standards in each grade and the potential for revisions.
During the era of NCLB, states were required to administer annual assessments in grades 3-8, and once in high school. To meet this requirement, states put all of their assessment eggs in the high-stakes standardized testing basket. Under ESSA, annual assessments are still required in English language arts and math; science assessments are required once each in elementary, middle, and high school. However, more leeway is permitted when selecting local assessments, inviting input and advocacy from Connecticut teachers.
Student performance reporting
One positive aspect of NCLB was the disaggregation of student performance data by subgroups. While this subgrouping was inappropriately used to identify schools as “failing,” it has helped states and districts identify pockets of greatest need. Under ESSA, disaggregation is still required, but the use of a single subgroup to identify schools is reduced.
School and District Performance
Under NCLB, school and district performance was almost entirely measured by standardized test scores. ESSA shifts some of this focus by requiring states to adopt additional indicators, including student growth, graduation rates, and at least one indicator that could include school climate, educator engagement, course offerings, or other indicators of school quality.
The weight of these factors is left to the states, as long as academic performance remains the most significant factor. Consequently, input from teachers will be crucial to shaping state policies that determine the most important outcomes of teaching and learning.
School Improvement Plans
School improvement plans are no longer required to include sanctions, impose school choice, or hand over public schools to corporate management companies as was the case under NCLB.
Under ESSA, schools identified as requiring improvement plans are those:
1) among the lowest performing five percent based on all indicators;
2) with a cohort graduation rate of less than 67 percent; and
3) demonstrating the lowest performance of subgroups.
Schools identified as in need of improvement must develop comprehensive improvement plans locally. The plans must include evidence-based interventions and identify resource inequities. States will be required to monitor improvement and to require additional interventions if schools are not improving according to the local plans.
Waivers from NCLB will expire August 1, 2016, and ESSA will begin to go into effect in the 2016-17 school year. But schools undergoing improvement plans will be required to abide by existing timelines until their plans expire. Conditions Connecticut agreed to in order to obtain waivers from NCLB, including the misguided state educator evaluation mandates, will not disappear simply because the waivers do.
“While the new law is a move in the right direction, we understand that implementing positive change will not occur overnight. Connecticut policymakers have a historic opportunity to usher in a new era in public education to create greater opportunities for every student to succeed. As Connecticut transitions to the new ESSA law, the voice of teachers in the process will be crucial to doing what is best for the students in the classrooms,” said Cohen.
“There is great potential to ensure that the focus in Connecticut classrooms is on student learning instead of student testing. Whether Connecticut reaches this potential will depend on the extent to which Governor Malloy and state legislators use the opportunity they are being granted by ESSA,” said CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg.