Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson held a symposium in State College outlining the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), formally known as No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), now reauthorized as Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA was signed into law on December 10, 2015 and has been held with much anticipation.
The room was filled in the Ramada, State College with various stakeholders in the community which included teachers, parents school administrator and other invested members. Penn State’s very own faculty in Education Policy Studies Dr. Dana Mitra and Dr. Gerald LeTendre were among the crowd for the explanation of the new act. Congressman Thompson thanked everyone for coming out to the forum and expressed how eager he felt about the new education law. He stated that the new act would give teachers an opportunity to teach. Congressman Thompson was very vocal about his concerns with schools over-testing students, “we have surpassed the point of critical mass of testing”. Congressman Thompson also underscored how this Act would allow parents to opt out of standardized testing. Previously under NCLB, school district’s federal funding would be reduced for students who did not participate in standardized testing. Under the new legislation families can choose to opt out with no penalties to the school or district.
A genuine concern about accountability was expressed and Congressman Thompson voiced that the new Act is structured in a way that is “flexible in a very structured way” and we should “trust the educators”. Congressman Thompson stated that he is hopeful that ESSA will make requirements for a more equitable distribution of funding to school districts that need it most. Also, he emphasized how the new legislation includes funding for restorative justice. Restorative justice is a part of the legislation that addresses and aims to reduce the expulsion rate which exacerbates the school to prison pipeline for students.
Following Congressman Thompson was Corey Williams, a federal lobbyist for the National Education Association. Ms. William’s presentation dealt more with the particulars surrounding ESSA. Her presentation began with a timeline of the contentious battle surrounding the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The 2002, and most recent, reauthorization of ESEA was known as No Child Left Behind or NCLB. Though ESEA was up for reauthorization in 2007, it was not approved until 2015. A large portion of Ms. Williams’ presentation was devoted to delineating the key changes of ESSA from its predecessor, NCLB. The two main changes she discussed dealt with testing and accountability.
The over-testing of students in the United States is a concern not only for its questionable effectiveness to gauge academic achievement, but its impact on issues of educational equity. This is a feeling that reached the highest levels of government and has been vocalized by President Obama. ESSA requires states to eliminate duplicative or unnecessary tests. It also gives schools wider discretion as to what test they choose to use for purpose of instructional reporting. Ms. Williams remarked that, “States may approve a district’s use of a locally selected, nationally recognized test such as the SAT or ACT.” While ESSA maintains yearly testing for grades 3-8 and once in high school for math and English language arts, Ms. Williams continued with, “…we are paving the way for testing reduction.”
ESSA swings the pendulum in educational policy in that it relinquishes much of the power for school accountability that was held by the federal government since the implementation of NCLB back to the individual states. Adequate yearly progress, a hallmark of NCLB, has been eliminated. State governments are now charged with identifying and improving struggling schools. How do they report their progress? Through the use of what Ms. Williams referred to as an “Opportunity Dashboard” where states report math, reading assessments, graduation rates, English Language proficiency and one other statewide indicator (chosen by the state) for middle and elementary schools. Implications for the results of those yearly dashboards for each state was unclear.
The first statement that Ms. Williams made that really stuck with me was when she said that, “the real opportunity of ESSA laid in its implementation by the states.” If history teaches us anything, from the standpoint of educational equity, the states have not always been the most reliable institutions in creating an environment of equal educational opportunity for all students. If the states fail to live up their responsibilities, won’t the federal government be there to hold them accountable? Well, Ms. Williams also placed a great deal of emphasis on the fact that ESSA places severe restrictions on the power of the federal Department of Education. While listing the powers of the Secretary of Education under ESSA Ms. Williams stopped mid list and said, “…let’s just say they can’t really do much.” While that may placate those who feel the federal role in education has gotten too large, what incentive does this legislation give to states to address some of their most pressing educational issues without any federal liability? The final quote of Ms. Williams that struck me as particularly relevant was, “What do we want the headline to be when we are on the other side of this implement [of ESSA]?” I hope that they read that states used their increased discretion to develop localized solutions to their most pressing issues. However, without ESSA providing incentive or structure to tackle underlying foundational issues surrounding education in the United States, those future headlines remain unclear.