Four Things Educators Should Know About ESSA, the New Federal Education Law

Today President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the reauthorization of President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This landmark education legislation was part of the “War on Poverty” and the quest to bring equity in education to disadvantaged children.

The passage of this legislation is being celebrated far and wide. At the most basic level, people are simply celebrating that Congress acted in a bi-partisan manner and re-authorized a law that was nine years overdue.  Beyond rejoicing for sheer movement, many people are delighting in the legislation’s flexibility and the return of local control.

Let’s discuss briefly what that means from a somewhat practical – this is policy not implementation after all – standpoint.

  • Assessments – Tests are still required but there is flexibility and funding to develop alternative approaches to assessments. 
  • Accountability –Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is gone and replaced with statewide accountability giving states more discretion in setting goals and figuring out how to intervene in low-performing schools. As states design their systems for measuring schools’ progress they will now need to use a student’s opportunity to learn, such as school climate or student engagement, as an indicator of progress.
  • Supporting teachers – The law ends the federal mandate tying high-stakes testing to teacher evaluation. With less teaching to the test, perhaps teachers can find even more joy in teaching and thinking through creative ways to meet individual student’s needs. Coupled with the flexibility states now have in turning around low performing schools, many hope this will be the right combination to helpsolve teacher recruitment and retention problems in some of the hardest to staff schools.
  • Fiscal Flexibility – This legislation consolidates more than 80 federal education programs down to 50 and in doing so creates a new $1.7 billion dollar Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant. Guiding parameters of this grant include funds being directed towards ensuring a well-rounded educational program and safety and health programs for students.  

As the vast majority of education audiences to varying degrees celebrate the passage of ESSA and the increased flexibility it affords, many of us are left wondering what implementation will look like in two or three years.

Will states and districts reflect on the lessons learned from years of prescriptive mandates and federal approaches to intervention? Will they partner to determine the most effective practices that integrate services and truly address the whole-child so our most disadvantaged students come to the classroom on a level-playing field ready to learn and benefit from the well-rounded education ESSA strives to achieve?

I remain optimistic from conversations I’ve had with State Chiefs, district leaders, and policy makers that if we keep our focus on the students, our determination on achieving equity, and use the momentum and excitement leaders feel at this moment with the passage of ESSA that we can at least get closer.

To learn more about the ESSA law, you can join a special Q & A with The White House and the U.S. Department of Education on the Scholastic Teachers Facebook page scheduled to begin today at 5:45 p.m. EST.