Education: ESSA replaces NCLB

by Judy Ferro

After seven years of working on a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, Congress recently passed a new education act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The highly-touted “compromise bill,” over 1,000 pages long, was released only days before the Dec. 2 vote in the House. Almost all the comments I could find last month said only that ESSA would return decision making to the states while retaining accountability and promoting reform of poor schools. The head of the National Education Association said the Act would “empower educators as trusted professionals to make school and classroom decisions while keeping the focus on students most in need.”

Yet, a persistent core of Idahoans opposed the bill. They spoke out against continuing testing and Common Core standards but implied there were other problems.

After the House passed the bill, however, I learned more from a Dec. 7 Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss.

Standardized tests in math and reading will still be given annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. In addition, students will be tested in science three times between grades 3 and 12. Data will continue to be submitted to the Federal government.

States are to intervene in schools where “student test scores are in the lowest five percent, where achievement gaps are greatest, and in high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate on time.” State intervention plans will have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Secretary of Education will no longer be allowed to challenge standards adopted by the states.

States are encouraged to set limits on how much time students are to spend on standardized testing.

States are to develop their own teacher evaluation programs.

These provisions do cut back on Federal involvement in decision making while still providing oversight as the advanced publicity promised.

Strauss also mentions, however, several provisions that have yet to get public notice, much less discussion.

A “Pay for Success” program will pay private investors in educational programs if the program reaches specified goals. Reportedly, Pay for Success has been tried in Utah where the global banking firm Goldman Sachs received payments for every student in an early childhood program that was not referred to special education programs.

Apparently, states will be able to provide programs without using any state funds but must then, with a little Federal help, repay the investors and add a profit if the program meets its goals. If programs that didn’t return a profit will be discontinued for lack of investors, every teacher involved could be evaluating student progress knowing that his or her job is on the line.

In addition, ESSA will require states to fund “’equitable services’ for children in private and religious schools who are deemed eligible.” This requirement is in conflict with the Idaho Constitution’s ban on any funding of religious schools. I would hope that “equitable services” would be limited to special education and that students would be “deemed eligible” based on state-adopted criteria. “Equitable services,” however, could mean anything from transportation to counselling.

A third change under the Act provides for private “teacher preparation academies” whose graduates are to enter salary schedules at the level of those with master’s degrees. And “teacher education programs that prepare teachers for high-poverty schools” will be allowed lower standards than others.

The general consensus is that ESSA is a much better program than No Child Left Behind. Its success will depend on all parties involved keeping the focus on helping students and not on gaming the system.

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