Every Student Succeeds?

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With significant bi-partisan support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a new law was overwhelmingly approved in December to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is being hailed as a significant improvement on NCLB, but an analysis of its components shows that it is a long way from the kind of federal reform that can really improve American public education.

First off,  it still requires standardized tests be administered to all students in grades 3 through 8, plus once during high school, pretty much exactly the same as NCLB.  It has the same mandates about reporting the results of not only the total student population, but also breaking out subgroups based on race, special needs, and low income.  At a first glance, ESSA does little to alleviate the standardized testing mania which was a huge negative characteristic of NCLB.

The key difference, however, has to do with the consequences for schools that don’t do well on those standardized tests.  Basically, what measures will be taken to improve schools with poor scores will be left to the states, which is a significant modification.  Under NCLB, under-performing schools had various federal hoops to leap through in order to keep Washington money flowing, when not enough students made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on the exams.  Under Arne Duncan’s reign as Education Secretary, schools could apply for waivers from those specific requirements, provided they met different requirements as outlined by, yep, Arne Duncan.  The chief way for that waiver to be approved was for “underperforming” schools to accept to the Common Core and put its standards in place.  Both NCLB and the waiver system used by the Obama administration shifted much control over how schools operated to the federal government.  According to every analysis of the new law that I have read, that changes under ESSA.

Instead, states will have to determine what standards and consequences come from the tests results.  So that could be either a good or a bad thing depending on how each state operates.  Many fear that the benign neglect our weakest schools received for countless generations (generally urban districts with much larger minority populations than the rest of the country) will surge back into prominence.  ESSA does mandate that states institute some interventions for schools scoring in the lowest 5% on the tests and high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate, but it doesn’t specify what those interventions should look like, who will be responsible for seeing that they are implemented, or what consequences will ensue should those interventions fail.  All that’s required is that Washington approve the “evidence-based” methods the states impose on those low-performing schools.  The testing aspect of ESSA will resemble NCLB, but what happens after those tests will be determined by fifty different state legislatures.

So it’s way too soon to claim that this will be an improvement over NCLB or the Duncan waiver system unless you believe (as some do) that any federal interference in school governance is bad.  The most probable outcome is that some states will do a better job navigating the extremes between overly intrusive, one-size-fits-all mandates being handed down by those with little understanding of a specific school’s needs or problems, and leaving all reforms and financing to local school districts that vary widely in both their resources and community involvement.  There’s little doubt that some states will be awful and indifferent to their problem schools, some will be way too autocratic and controlling, and a few will find the balance to nudge problem schools into improving without intruding too much.  The percentages in each of those categories will determine if ESSA facilitates reform that can help schools in America get better.

A new feature of ESSA is that it will provide for more tax dollars being funneled into private and parochial schools.  States will now have to fund “equitable services” for children in those schools who are deemed eligible.  Every state will be required to have an “ombudsman” to make sure those non-public schools get their funding in a “timely” fashion.  As an advocate for public schools, I worry about this as all funding is precious and I believe should be given only to schools subject to public oversight—the state has little say on how private/parochial schools run, compared to its control over public schools. That being said, “equitable services” should mean that the schools receiving this money will get oversight to make sure the cash is spent on those services, which, by the way, should be equitable.  Despite my reservations about non-public schools receiving public money, at least the goal here is to make sure all special needs kids are treated equally.  That intent I can support.

Then there is the “Pay for Success” initiative, which does not originate with ESSA, but is endorsed by it.  Basically, Pay for Success allows private corporations to earn a profit by investing in educational programs.  In Utah, for example, Goldman Sachs spent $1,700 per pupil on a program designed to prevent pre-school kids from ending up in special education programs once they entered public schools.  When 99% of the targeted students did not need special education placement at the end of the program, Goldman Sachs earned a profit of roughly $260,000.  That 99% figure, however, has been called into question by virtually every early education expert (you can read about it in much greater detail here).  There’s also the fundamental issue of allowing private corporations to make profits from public education funds—I would argue that the entire public education system is a huge benefit (profit) to the business world in the literate, creative students it churns out (the high school district where I worked certainly produced hundreds like that every year), and it is morally reprehensible for corporations to try to bilk additional profits out of public schools.

And with all of this, we still are inextricably tied to standardized tests as a means to assess the quality of both our students and the schools they attend.  We’ve been over and over how wrong this approach is (see this for one of my many anti-testing rants), but ESSA does little to alleviate that problem.  There may be a slight lessening in all the needless testing prep that schools now feel compelled to do since the new consequences for poor standardized test scores will vary from state to state as well as ESSA’s not requiring teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores, but that could easily change depending on individual state actions.  Regardless, as long as tests are mandated, results are published, and poor scores get punished; schools will feel obligated to spend valuable class time in getting students ready for them, not to mention the additional hours used in administering them.

Overall this is a slight move in the right direction since Washington is admitting that more local control is better than a central locus.  But the wrong-headed educational moves of governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, and our very own Bruce Rauner show that state-level control often isn’t any better than Arne Duncan or NCLB, and can be worse.  Schools can’t and won’t improve unless we move to a more teacher-centric approach:  Where all parties (parents, students, community members, school boards, politicians, and especially teachers) work collectively to create the standards for which our children should strive and then get out of the way to let those with the most expertise and experience—the teachers—to help the students strive for those standards using methods the teachers believe to be best for their unique situations.  No matter how brilliant or comprehensive a federal law or state program is, it will not significantly impact our classrooms unless the teachers enthusiastically see it as beneficial to their individual students and schools.

Of course I hope that ESSA works more effectively than NCLB or the patchwork federal control Duncan used through the Common Core years.  Based on what I’ve read, however, I’m not optimistic.  You can read some of the articles I’ve looked at to see how others are previewing this new law in

The Washington Post, The New York Times, EdSource, IllinoisTimes, The PBS News Hour (video), U.S. News and World Report, Brookings, and The Progressive.  These offer a variety of opinions on both the need to change NCLB and how beneficial ESSA might be.

For more understanding on how schools work and can really be improved, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.  To read some sample chapters, you can go here.

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