ESSA: Opportunities and Risks

ESSA: Opportunities and Risks

This is the first in a series of blogs from the EducationCounsel team unpacking ESSA and highlighting next steps for states and local school districts.

ESSA: Opportunities and Risks
Scott Palmer, Managing Partner, EducationCounsel

Palmer_Scott-220x220Last week President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). As the President noted at the signing ceremony, ESSA represents an all-too-rare bipartisan effort after many years’ delay (what he called a “Christmas miracle”) and an affirmation of education as a continuing national priority.  At the same time, the President’s signature only begins the next phase of work in understanding, leveraging, and implementing the law. ESSA’s ultimate impact will depend greatly on what states, districts, and advocates make of it.

ESSA is a complex law – all 1000-plus pages of it.  It will take thoughtful, strategic analysis to unpack what the law really says and (even more importantly) what it could and should mean to best advance state and local leadership, and support great teaching, learning, and outcomes for all students.

At the outset, it is important to understand that Congress’s actions on ESSA were motivated primarily by bipartisan agreement to “fix” NCLB.  As such, ESSA maintains the basic architecture of standards-based reform reflected in NCLB, including standards, annual assessments, accountability systems, data reporting, supports for underperforming schools, etc.  But there are a couple of big shifts:

First, for the first time in federal statute, ESSA in effect requires that state standards (and thereby the systems that flow from them) be aligned with college and career ready outcomes for all students.  This builds on state leadership (including but not limited to the Common Core) and provides real opportunity for states and districts to set a clear “line of sight” by defining college and career readiness to include the array of deeper learning knowledge and skills – academic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal – that are required for success in today’s economy and society.

Second, ESSA moves authority (to varying degrees) back toward states and districts to take evidence-based actions to design their standards-based education systems – building on and going beyond state flexibility reflected in ESEA waivers.  And the bill includes limitations on the US Department of Education’s (USED’s) authority to regulate or review these design decisions in some ways.

Together, these two shifts constitute significant change from NCLB’s “loose-tight” model (where states set the bar for student success at any level but then federal law sought to more rigidly define how states get there) toward a potential “tight-loose” model (where there is shared agreement on a high-bar for all students, and states and locals lead the efforts to achieve that bar).  But it will take time to know whether and how ESSA can lead to a better culture for reform and bigger improvements in teaching and learning, particularly for poor and minority students who so often need the most and have gotten the least.

We at EducationCounsel intend to work hard to inform and support state and local leadership in that regard.  To start, here are three immediate opportunities and one big risk that we see in ESSA.  In the coming weeks, we will analyze more deeply other parts of the law – such as accountability, assessment, teacher evaluation and development, principal leadership, school improvement, and early learning – using this same frame.

Three Opportunities

  1. Unleash State and Local Innovation. The shift in ESSA back toward state and local control creates new opportunities – both real and perceived – for states and districts to innovate and to design systems that best support college and career ready teaching and learning for all students in their contexts.  For example, over the next 18 months, every state will have to (again) design new accountability systems for schools and districts based on multiple measures of teaching and learning for all students and critical subgroups.  States could also choose to leverage new ESSA assessment pilot programs or assessment audits to design higher-quality systems of assessment that better inform teaching and learning, and better measure the full array of critical knowledge and skills.  In addition, many states must decide how to best move forward, and not backward, with their new systems of educator evaluation to improve quality based on multiple measures – now in the absence of direct federal requirements.  And many districts will have to work with states to design new, evidence-based systems of supports for an array of lowest-performing schools.  All of this will constitute big work across the nation in the coming 1-2 years, and will require investments in state and local capacity and assistance.  And it begins now!
  1. Build Learning Systems. Creating education systems that can achieve college and career ready outcomes for all students will require fundamental changes in teaching, learning, and supports.  This requires not a one-time effort to transition from NCLB but rather the creation of true evidence-based learning systems at the state and local levels based on innovation, periodic review, and continuous improvement over time.  Creating these kinds of “learning systems” could have a big, positive impact on culture and outcomes at all levels.  And there is some language in ESSA to support this shift.  For example, ESSA requires in many places that states and districts take “evidence-based” actions, and that that state and local plans under Title I “be periodically reviewed and revised, as necessary” to reflect changes in strategies and programs.
  1. Don’t Forget the Feds. While ESSA represents a shift toward state and local authority, the federal government maintains important roles – from review and approval of state plans and applications for formula funds to administering competitive programs.  Indeed, the most immediate next steps in ESSA include USED promulgating regulations and guidance with regard to key ESSA provisions – further defining (in law) what they mean, might mean, and may not  In particular, the Obama Administration will need to determine right away its timeline and priorities for starting and finishing regulations prior to the end of the Administration – just over one year from now.  This creates significant opportunity to translate ESSA into action.

One Risk

  1. chartThe Need to Lead with Equity. ESSA’s history is deeply rooted in equity.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was part of the War on Poverty; the focus of Title I (and most other titles) continues to be providing additional federal funds to support education for disadvantaged students; and ESSA retains NCLB’s strong focus on disaggregation of data and accountability for performance of all subgroups.  However, as ESSA reduces NCLB’s federal, top-down structure and creates new room for state and local innovation, it also creates new risks that states or districts that do not have the will, capital, or capacity to lead and continuously improve will stall or regress, and that students in those places will fall through the cracks.  Perhaps the biggest bet in ESSA is that transparency of data will empower stakeholders in all places to ensure that we move forward and not backward from the “floor” of NCLB.  But this will require a focus on state and local capacity and on potent, constructive advocacy and stronger systems of stakeholder engagement – nationwide.  ESSA must elevate, not subtly undercut, our commitment to equity.

One more thing:  As ESSA was designed to “fix” NCLB, it also relies heavily on the current dominant “pillars” of reform, such as standards, assessments, accountability, school improvement, data reporting, etc.  These are important “drivers,” but there are other, deeper drivers that are also important to ensuring college and career ready teaching and learning for all students – such as promoting personalized, competency-based learning options for all students; transforming systems of educator professional learning; and addressing the predictable effects of poverty and adversity in schools.  There are opportunities emanating from ESSA to elevate these pillars as well, and advance a fuller, deeper frame for education reform.  But this will require states, districts, and advocates to adopt an “ESSA-plus” mentality even as the most basic level of ESEA implementation demands a lot of state and local capacity.

A student entering kindergarten after NCLB was enacted in 2001 should have graduated from high school last year, in 2015 – the same year in which 100% of students were supposed to be “proficient” under that law.  Given current graduation and education attainment rates, there is work to be done.  The new ESSA calls for an “all hands on deck” approach to our education system – demanding that we all be at our best in looking out for students’ needs across all communities.  If we can remain vigilant and support our school systems, the new law has the potential to bring important shifts toward a next-generation of reform.  The time for this emboldened vision and leadership across the nation starts now.

Share this post