Last week, President Obama signed the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA” or the “Act”) into law. The Act reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (“ESEA”). A bipartisan compromise bill, ESSA supersedes the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”). ESSA effectively replaces NCLB’s federal-centric, one-size-fits-all model of K-12 education reform and returns authority back to states and school districts to determine the best models for student achievement. Importantly, ESSA:
- Allocates $250 million in annual funding for early childhood education as a means of expanding access to high-quality preschools. ESSA also clarifies that ESEA funds may be used to improve early childhood education programs;
- Requires states to set and measure progress toward their own academic goals. NCLB set one academic goal for the entire nation: 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. ESSA instead requires states to set individual goals;
- Requires school districts to design evidence-based interventions for low performing schools, with technical assistances from states. Under the ESSA model, failing schools will be marked for interventions if they are among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state, graduate less than two-thirds of students on time, or maintain a particular subgroup that consistently underperforms. Unlike NCLB in which a school could be penalized if just one of its subgroups failed to meet annual testing benchmarks, ESSA directs districts to implement intervention models and requires states to monitor intervention efforts and assist districts if intervention efforts fail. ESSA also prohibits the federal government from defining specific steps schools must take to improve failing schools;
- Deemphasizes testing as the key to measure success. Under ESSA states must continue to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once during high school and disaggregate testing data based on students’ race, income, ethnicity and disability and English-language learner status. While testing is still mandated, states will be permitted to determine how to interrupt test scores, use factors other than test scores to assess student performance, and determine the weight testing plays in evaluating a school’s academic progress. Graduation rates, postsecondary and workforce readiness, and English proficiency for English language learners must also serve as success indicators. States will also be permitted to use “non-academic” measures such as parent engagement and access to advanced placement courses to measure school performance. The Act seeks to deemphasize testing so that schools and districts place less of an emphasis of teaching “toward the test,” a significant criticism under the NCLB regime;
- Permits, but does not require, states to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems. ESSA also eliminates NCLB’s definition of highly qualify teachers and permits states to define the term such that an individual state will now be able determine if teacher evaluations should be tied to student testing;
- Requires school districts to consult with parents, teachers, school leaders, specialized instructional staff, and community and local government stakeholders in the planning and implementation of comprehensive programs to improve students’ safety, health, well-being, and academic achievement during and after the school day;
- Ensures homeless students have access to critical support services provided by local school districts including charter and magnet schools, summer school, career and technical education, advanced placement courses, and online learning opportunities. ESSA also ensures that school district representatives are properly trained to deal with the challenges unique to homeless students;
- Reduces the legal authority of the U.S. Secretary of Education (the “Secretary”) by barring the Secretary from mandating or incentivizing states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, such as Common Core; and
- Ends the era of waivers. ESSA also prohibits the Secretary from imposing additional requirements on states seeking waivers under federal law. Approximately 42 states sought waivers under the NCLB. Such waivers were granted if states agreed to implement certain reforms.
Some critics have argued that ESSA takes too much control away from the federal government when it is the federal government that funds a significant portion of state educational dollars, and that it does not have sufficient mechanisms to ensure that states actually take steps to implement comprehensive accountability systems. Others argue that ESSA focuses too much on the lowest performing schools and lets the marginal schools off the hook for underperformance.
The extent to which ESSA will change how school districts and states operate is largely unknown. The vast majority of states sought waivers under NCLB, and so many of NCLB’s strict requirements were inoperative for many states. The practical implications of ESSA remain to be seen. California school districts and other local education agencies should work with the State to determine if and how these changes will effect daily operations, curriculum, and teacher development and evaluation.