The Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) and American Education’s “Scarlet Letters”

After it landed on President Obama’s desk in the wake of broad bipartisan support from the House and Senate, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law on December 10, 2015. Intended to be an update to the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, ESSA significantly scales back the federal government’s authority to intervene in schools that were underperforming, falling short of meeting student achievement targets, and failing. Under ESSA, states will now have a lot more leeway to identify and fix struggling schools.

Many critics of NCLB lamented what they saw as a denaturing of educational practice as a humane, uplifting, and (historically anyway) noble endeavor and— citing its emphasis on teaching/testing a very narrow band of academic skills implemented with a high stakes “blame and punish” mentality—a diminishment of the art of teaching. Under pressure from NCLB mandates to reach specific achievement benchmarks, the educational enterprise in countless public school districts nationwide was reduced to little more than a scramble each year to make a certain quota of students who attained or exceeded a certain score on a standardized test set by decision-makers who were often far removed from classroom and neighborhood realities. Under the threat of punishment and censure, teaching and learning in thousands of our nation’s schools became a game of “chase the cut score”, or else. The “or else” included such possibilities as firing staff members, replacing the principal, and closing the school down.

The Progressive Network for Public Education and others say that the new bill still puts too much emphasis on testing—ESSA retains mandatory testing from third through eighth grade, for example—and concern remains that tests will continue to be misused and misapplied. Under ESSA however, automatic mandatory punishments would be detached from test results, and teachers would no longer be compelled to bow to the constant pressure and stress under which they operated and to the wrath that might befall them during their teacher evaluation reviews as a result of students performing poorly on narrowly-focused, standardized tests.

To its credit, NCLB did expose for the first time the staggering achievement gap between America’s poorest schools and schools located in more affluent communities, and between students from low-income families, English Language learning students or students with disabilities, and students from stable homes and families with adequate incomes. While ESSA is a much-welcomed step in the right direction, no law—whether administered at the federal or state (or local) level—will be effective in narrowing the shameful achievement gap (“AG”)— American Education’s scarlet letters—that now exists in our public schools, unless we are successful in our attempts to address underlying issues of broader concern (e.g. families living in poverty; ravages of crime and neighborhood violence; inequitable access to quality early childhood education; under-resourced schools; lack of access to quality health care; high incidence of under employment).

Unfortunately, not all students arrive at school every day well-rested, well-nourished, fit, emotionally secure, in good health, and ready to learn. To the critical needs of these students the foundational academic narrative of contemporary educational reform has been insufficiently responsive. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides us an opportunity to improve things by giving educators, parents, policy-makers, and members of allied professions the opportunity to decide—at the community level—what experiences and practices are best and that make sense for students in our communities.

While the task before us is not easy, it is essential. It includes assessment of what students need most based on a suite of measures, rather than on a single test score. It also includes embedding into our most challenged schools a cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted approach to student development and learning whereby teachers are much more closely supported by school counselors, nurses, social workers, bi-lingual interpreters, nurses, specialists in the varying domains of learning needs, etc.—whatever supports that any given school needs most urgently. In our poorest schools warm breakfast and lunch programs should be available, along with engaging after-school enrichment and learning-support programs. No, it’s not easy, and it’s not cheap. However, it does little good (and could do much harm) to continue hammering low-performing schools if we are not willing or able to provide the support (resources, professional development, incentives, etc.) and the technical capacity these schools need.

With ESSA we have a chance to institute measures that enable us to determine many of the important ways that individual students, their teachers and administers are improving. Again, analyzing what the evidence from multiple and varied assessment tools reveals about students’ and teachers’ accomplishments, consideration regarding changing things in the classroom or staying the course can be undertaken. In what areas is progress being made? In what areas are more support, effort, and resources indicated? In what ways might we better customize learning experiences that are effective for individual learners?
Lastly, with ESSA we also have a chance to acknowledge the importance of development and accomplishment of the whole child (e.g. students’ capacity for ethical decision-making; their artistic and self-expressive impulses; their passion for exploration and creativity; their interest in civic engagement and social justice, their pursuit of wondrous things), not just performance on a narrow band of academic skills. Our schools can do better, and hopefully ESSA provides us with a realistic chance this time around of rising more successfully to the challenge.

Phil Wishon
January, 2016