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ESSA Proves Education on the Backburner

By February 7, 2016February 22nd, 2022Resources, School Improvement, Teaching Social Justice

In December 2015, with a stroke of the executive pen, President Obama enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), ending thirteen years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Act renewed funding for elementary and secondary schools, and removed old standards for over 50 million students, 3.5 million teachers, and 100 thousand schools nationwide. In a speech introducing ESSA, the President said, “The goals of NCLB were the right ones — high standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap,” but ultimately, the law was a failure that “led to too much testing during classroom time…and didn’t produce the kind of results we wanted to see.”


A report from the Department of Education echoes the President, stating, “NCLB represented a significant step forward…in many respects, particularly as it shined a light on where students…needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, home language, or background,” but continues, “over time, NCLB’s prescriptive requirements became increasingly unworkable for schools and educators.” Veteran educators are all-too familiar with NCLB’s overemphasis on testing, unrealistic standards for proficiency, and drastic “accountability” measures that disproportionately affected under-resourced schools. Leaving that dead horse alone, let’s focus on the key differences between ESSA and NCLB, for better and worse.

To understand ESSA, start with the tenure of Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education. After his confirmation in 2009, Duncan began offering states exemption from No Child Left Behind’s yearly improvement requirements, provided they adopt curriculum and policies preferred by the Dept. of Education. 43 states and the District of Columbia operated under this exemption in 2015. Some in Congress viewed the exemption as an act of executive overreach: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee went so far as to pejoratively term Duncan the “national school superintendent.”

When Congress wrote ESSA, they limited the powers of the Secretary of Education and delegated them to the States. This transition of authorities (“The Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State…”) extends into curriculum, testing, and faculty training. While there is great potential for regional autonomy in education policy, the changes come accompanied by grounds for concern.

In shifting standards for curriculum to the States, there lives potential for more relevant content. High schools might offer vocational courses that provide students with certificates for local industries. Teachers might receive greater flexibility to create lessons that reference the community, geography, or history of the region that better engages students. But these are all possibilities, not certainties. Will all 50 states exercise sound judgment in developing or adopting new curriculum under ESSA?

One example of questionable decision making at the state level came to light in October 2015: parents of 9th grade students in Texas discovered their children’s World Geography textbooks referred to African slaves as migrant “workers.” They notified the publisher, McGraw-Hill, who offered to replace the books free of charge or provide stickers to cover the caption. State Board of Education member David Bradley, who approved the book, downplayed the issue as insignificant, saying it would “make for a great Jerry Seinfeld episode: something out of nothing.”

In the State of Michigan, more unsettling problems exist. In the city of Flint, Virginia Tech researchers discovered tap water contained levels of lead capable of creating permanent cognitive impairment in children. The toxic conditions arose after the “emergency manager” appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder switched the municipal water supply to the polluted Flint River in a cost-cutting budget move. While financial managers appointed by states are not unheard of–Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York have used them–Michigan’s law, PA 436, is unparalleled in scope. The Act permits the Governor to disenfranchise voters of struggling cities by replacing elected city councils and school boards with an autocrat of his choosing. The appointee can sell off public assets, terminate collectively bargained contracts, and bypass local laws to “streamline” the process of fiscal recovery, even though social scientists have demonstrated (and we’ve discussed) how the reckless pursuit of efficiency produces abhorrent outcomes.

If you’re wondering what tap water has to do with class content, consider that the PA 436 also provides emergency managers powers beyond public works: they dictate the “academic and educational” standards of students in affected school districts. In January 2015, Gov. Snyder appointed Darnell Earley, the same individual who supervised the change in Flint’s water supply, as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. Conditions under Earley were deplorable. In January 2016, DPS teachers, who are banned from striking by Michigan law, orchestrated mass sick-outs to protest health risks that included inadequate heat, insect infestations, and dead rodents in classrooms. DPS responded by filing a court motion eviscerating the teachers’ union and demanding they cease the sick-out tactic. Detroit’s Mayor then conducted an investigative tour of DPS facilities that substantiated the teachers’ assertions.

With supporting evidence in hand, the Detroit Federation of Teachers filed suit against Earley and DPS. In the days following, Earley was subpoenaed by Congress and named the target of an FBI investigation before submitting his resignation. While it’s a relief the man who poisoned Flint’s children is leaving DPS, we should ask if a system that casts Darnell Earley as appropriate personnel to create the “academic and educational” standards for Detroit’s students makes any sense?

Less controversially, ESSA ends the mandatory “high-stakes” testing of NCLB. States are still required to test students annually, but have enhanced freedom to determine the number and nature of the tests. In ESSA’s decentralization of testing, we see the opportunity for the selection of tests that more accurately measure student progress. Audrey Qualls, co-author of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, told Frontline standardized tests are designed to measure students’ strengths, weaknesses, and growth on specific content. When proctored nationally, they were being used improperly: different states and districts teach content the tests were not meant to assess. Now that states have more flexibility to choose how they measure learning and growth, they can choose evaluation methods that more closely fit their curriculum.

However, the implications of at least one state’s recent actions as they relate to testing are alarming. In Wisconsin, the legislature pushed aggressive austerity reforms that cut funding for public education. Parents, teachers, and students are dismayed over the outcome: the state slid from the 2nd to 41st best ACT college entrance exam scores nationally between 2014 and 2015. Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling told Urban Milwaukee, “Local school districts have really taken it on the chin these past several years and I think these test scores are a reflection of that fact.” Shilling continued, stating, “Teachers in Wisconsin are working harder than ever, but…budget cuts, special interest giveaways…have taken a toll on our schools.”

And let’s not forget Kansas: in 2014, the state passed budget cuts to public schools so severe that the courts found they violated equal access provisions established by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended the doctrine of “separate but equal”. Governor Brownback and the Kansas legislature retaliated by passing bills revoking the Court’s ability to appoint local Chief Judges or establish circuit court budgets before passing another bill threatening to defund the state’s Courts if they overturned other illegal laws. It is ironic that Brownback, who frequently denounces President Obama for dictatorial leanings, and once sent a fundraising memo accusing him of making “our Constitution weaker,” would act with such extraordinary irreverence for the rule of constitutional law. Will Kansas attempt to use its new powers to set education benchmarks as low as it did the education budget?

ESSA stipulates the Secretary of Education is prohibited from influencing “teacher, principal, or other school leader professional standards, certification, or licensing” by the states. Here, we find concern not with states, but special interest lobbying at the federal level. ESSA calls for states to accept certificate based teacher-training programs represented by the pro-privatization New Schools Venture Fund as, “at least the equivalent of a master’s degree…for the purpose of hiring, retention, compensation, and promotion.” This should come as no surprise when considering that Ted Mitchell, the acting Under Secretary of Education, served as CEO of NSVF. Under Mitchell’s lead, NSVF successfully lobbied to interject comparable language into the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, a bill designed to fund private teacher-training institutions for “high-needs” students and schools. GREAT never passed, but its language was annexed into ESSA.

Along with relaxing restrictions on accrediting bodies, requirements for advanced degrees, and required college credits in the field of study being taught, the ESSA standards that states “may choose to adopt” eliminate the waiting period for teachers in training programs to become teachers of record. The rationale provided was that existing standards represented an “unnecessary restriction on the methods of the academy.” As discussed in a previous column, many of these training programs already accept students with bachelor’s degrees in fields other than education, and last as few as five weeks. To say individuals who just arrived at a teacher training program with a BA and possess no training in education are ill-prepared to teach in a high-needs school is a dramatic understatement. We’ve discussed how the “trial by fire” “methods of the academy” lead to high teacher-turnover, and question how this will better the learning of students in greatest need of quality teachers?

While we can’t fully gauge ESSA’s effects, its ultimate form remains to-be-determined by the states, and the upcoming election may yield yet another re-write. That noted, we can comfortably conclude two things: First, where NCLB identified diverging test results for different student groups in a state, ESSA ensures students in different states will receive diverging educations. Second, there will be fascinating (and maybe frightening) conflicts, challenges, and concessions throughout the nation’s capitols and courtrooms in the years to come.

By: T. Madison Glimp
Content Contributor @ Kiddom

Originally published at Teacher Voice.