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Understanding the Every Student Succeeds Act

Jordan Catapano

On Thursday, Dec. 10, 2016, President Obama signed a bill he called an “Early Christmas present.” That present was a bipartisan bill reforming education, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Its passage marks the end of the No Child Left Behind era, and although the bill will formally take effect in future school years, the work for states and districts has already begun.

Background of Education Bills

If you want to understand what exactly this bill represents, it’s best to put it into context. In 1965 President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was part of his “War on poverty.” This act gave the federal government a much larger role in American education, funding primary and secondary education as well as establishing standards for achievement and evaluation.

Johnson’s ESEA has largely remained in effect, as it has typically been reauthorized by Congress every five years since its inception, with various modifications accompanying each reauthorization. President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was not a new bill, but rather the sixth reauthorization of ESEA. It had a new name and new design, but it was really an extenuation of Johnson’s original bill.

In 2007 NCLB was up for reauthorization again, though President Obama’s administration struggled with a lack of unilateral cooperation to appropriately modify the act. Many problems were identified with NCLB, as it presented what many saw as a harsh “Test and punish” scheme that failed to recognize the realities of the educational landscape. The administration granted waivers to various states who failed to meet certain NCLB requirements, but eventually a new bill was going to need to be passed. It wasn’t until 2014 that the effort was again taken up in earnest to rewrite the education bill.

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Fortunately, 14 years after NCLB’s adoption, the Senate and the House each drafted their own version of ESEA reauthorization. The Senate and House then negotiated passing a single, unified bill, and each did so in early December. Then President Obama signed the bill – a renewal of ESEA called the Every Student Succeeds Act – into law on December 10, 2015.

In the words of Paul Ryan, Speaker of House, “This is the biggest rewrite of our education laws in 25 years.” And here’s why he would say that.

What’s In the Bill

One of the more onerous complaints regarding NCLB was how it featured an overemphasis on testing and test prep coupled with harsh consequences for schools failing to meet ever-increasing “Annual Yearly Progress” (AYP) standards. People saw in NCLB a large federal intrusion into the classroom, and ESSA seems in part to be a response to this overreach.

The most celebrated element changing with the passage of ESSA is that much more flexibility is granted to states for determining their standards, accountability, and evaluation measures. While the ideal behind NCLB was to help ensure that all students everywhere achieved, it gave a one-sized-fits-all approach to the nation’s schools that ultimately focused too much on testing and not enough on the unique needs of each community. ESSA attempts to strike a more reasonable balance between holding all the nation’s schools up to a high standard while granting states the latitude they need to appropriately govern education themselves.

But it’s not like ESSA gets rid of testing; instead, it grants states flexibility with determining when and how to test as long as students in grades 3-8 are tested each year, and once in high school. States can even set a cap on how many hours are spent testing. The same flexibility is established when it comes to standards: States are free to determine their own standards. They can keep the Common Core; they can return to their own state’s standards, or they can fashion something new. They can have the standards they like, so long as they have standards.

The accountability measure was perhaps one of the most burdensome components of NCLB, as states were required to track the progress of all student subgroups. Schools failing to meet their AYP target were given a sequence of consequences. Yikes! Now, AYP is gone, and ESSA offers states an opportunity to define their own accountability standards. States must ensure their plans fit underneath a broad definition of what accountability plans need to include, but generally are now accountable to themselves rather than an overbearing federal government. ESSA does require that state accountability systems expect action on behalf of subgroups of students who consistently underperform.

ESSA also notably prevents the federal government from mandating teacher evaluations or even defining what an “Effective” teacher is – that’s now up to the states as well. NCLB required the hiring of “Highly effective teachers,” though now that term is left up to states to define. Also notably, there’s a provision in ESSA that allows states to determine if they’ll permit parents to opt-out their students from state testing. Some states may allow opting-out while others might not.

How ESSA Affects Us and Our Students

As you can tell, ESSA is largely designed to shift much of the decision-making power back to the states. The Department of Education will set general guidelines, but when it comes to evaluations, standards, testing, rankings, interventions, and much more, the states get to decide for themselves. The one-size-fits-all, top-down policy of the last decade is largely diminished. So what does this mean for us?

First, we’re going to see state capitals bombarded with petitions from organizations, businesses, special interest groups, unions, school officials, and the like with their recommendations for what educational course the state should take. The law allows states a full 18 months as a transition period from their current systems to the ones permitted under ESSA, so we may not see formal changes to educational policy until the 2017-2018 school year. Until then, states will likely keep the current system in place until they’re likely to switch to their new state-decided policy. For example, although AYP doesn’t exist anymore under ESSA, it is still in effect until August 1, 2016. Schools identified as in need of improvement will undergo current interventions until new state-proscribed policies take effect.

Now, even though one of the much-derided elements of NCLB was the onslaught of testing, the testing will largely remain in place. ESSA mandates that students be tested in both math and reading in grades 3-8, and once in high school, plus additional science testing in various years. So don’t expect the testing to go away. What will change, perhaps, are the types of tests your state chooses to administer, and when and how that testing occurs. Also, states have more flexibility with how they choose to interpret and respond to test scores – so the “Punish” element of NCLB will be largely reduced as states have the opportunity to determine what interventions to make with failing schools. This means that the time teachers have allocated to test preparation can be redirected toward more profitable curriculum.

We can expect a lot of questions in the upcoming year as well. Although the law has lots of language, there remain areas that lack specificity. For example, the law needs to further specify when states must first identify schools needing improvement, what the requirements for subgroup accountability are, and what the ratio between academic and non-academic indicators ought to be. If anything, we can anticipate many questions at the district and state level as leaders attempt to both conform to the law’s boundaries and do what’s best for their individual states. While the law takes away the strict penalties of NCLB, it leaves questions in their wake as to how interventions and accountability are expected to function. And although a great deal of power is taken out of the Secretary of Education’s hands, it remains to be seen how much the Department of Education will need to clarify various expectations the law vaguely outlines.

Also, it’s worthy to note that even though ESSA grants states more dominion over education, President Obama has already awarded waivers to 42 states, giving them an informal degree of flexibility that ESSA merely formalizes. If states wanted more control and flexibility, it’s likely they already have it. ESSA, in the eyes of some, will do little to change the way education is played out at the ground level. The political rhetoric may change, but the reality of day-to-day classroom operations likely will not.

But one thing is for sure: This is only the beginning. Now that states have more control over standards, accountability, evaluations, and assessments, they need to decide what course they’ll take. They’ll need to decide whom to listen to. They’ll need to try things they believe are in the best interest of their students. They’ll need to pass laws, tinker with the system, and continually modify – all while districts scramble to figure out what they have been doing that will stay and what they now need to add or modify.

As teachers, we can anticipate further changes over the next few years as states tinker with how best to adopt the standards and testing measures they find most suitable. And –naturally – once we have everything figured out, it will likely change again.

What do you think about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Share your observations with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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