On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), starting a new era in American education law. The ESSA was introduced as an important step to close the educational opportunity and achievement gap among students. At the ESSA signing ceremony, President Obama announced: “With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal—that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will.” But what does this new law really mean for students, educators, schools, and districts? In order to understand the impact of ESSA, I sat down with Ed Fuller, Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Director of Center for Evaluation and Policy Analysis at Penn State. Our conversation was around major differences of ESSA compared to its predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), as well as possible impacts of the law on educational equity in Pennsylvania
To begin our conversation, Dr. Fuller clarified that, while many people expect a major test reduction, the amount of testing required by ESSA is similar to what was required under NCLB. “There is no reduction in testing through ESSA,” Dr. Fuller emphasized.
The most important change, however, is that states will not be constrained by the federal mandates on how to create their school accountability system, which in turn, allows states to design their methods to identify and improve the lowest 5% of schools. “This is a big change,” he said, because now states can adopt their own school evaluation system that more accurately school effectiveness in their particular contexts. Similarly, instead of being required to follow federal mandates, states will now be able decide how they want to evaluate their teachers and principals. However, Dr. Fuller was uncertain whether states would take this opportunity to develop their unique evaluation systems or still hold on to the old models that mostly evaluate teachers, principals, and schools based on student achievement scores.
Another major change of this bill, according to Dr. Fuller, is that now states are required to report students’ scores according to race and ethnic subgroups, instead of reporting “super sub-groups” comprised of economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students in special education. Dr. Fuller expected that this change might take states some time to adjust their score reporting system.
The last major change he noted is that ESSA provides some incentives for states to develop teacher preparation and principal preparation programs outside of the traditional university structure. These programs need not be located within a university and so anyone can start their own teacher and principal evaluation programs. Graduates of these programs can be licensed to teach or lead in the states and treated as having a degree. “So, it could undermine higher education’s role in teacher preparation and principal preparation, although that remains to be seen,” Dr. Fuller remarked.
Since PEEP focuses on educational equity in Pennsylvania, I was wondering how ESSA would influence the Pennsylvania educational system in terms of educational equity. Dr. Fuller said that Pennsylvania has already undertaken effort to change the School Performance Profile (SPP) Score, so this act will just open more opportunity for the state to make further changes such as adjusting the SPP indicators by student background characteristics as a strategy to more accurately measure educator and school effectiveness. This will, in turn, more accurately identify schools in need of assistance instead of simply assuming high-poverty and predominantly minority schools are underperforming. The immediate influence is that the state needs to switch the score reporting system to race and ethnicity categories on time for the next school year. “They were given a very short time frame,” Dr. Fuller commented.
I then shared with him my concern about unequal funding distribution in Pennsylvania and wondered how ESSA might help with that. Dr. Fuller explained that because the act does not focus on funding, it does not provide any direct way to equalize funding in the system. However, he mentioned that there are several mechanisms in ESSA that may bring more educational equity for low-income, minority, and low-achieving students, who are more likely to be found in underfunded schools. The first mechanism, he explained, is the requirement that states identify their lowest 5% of schools and to provide assistance to those schools. If Pennsylvania adopts a more accurate indicator of school effectiveness, then the schools most in need of improvement will be identified and receive additional funding and support. While not all such schools will be high-poverty and predominantly minority, many of them will be because of the inequitable funding system in Pennsylvania..
The second mechanism is providing more funding for equitable distribution of teachers so that low-income students in rural and urban areas can have similar quality teachers as wealthy students in sub-urban areas do. “Interestingly enough,” Dr. Fuller said, “[the legislators] did not put in any funding for equitable distribution of principals […] You can never have an equitable distribution of teachers without having an equitable distribution of principals. So, they missed the boat on that one.”
The third mechanism is improving teacher preparation and principal preparation programs, which is believed to produce more qualified teachers and principals to serve students in need. “That’s the claim,” he said, “but we all have to wait and see how it works.”
This summer, Dr. Fuller will be offering a course focused on using data to examine issues of equity and access in Pennsylvania. Students will learn how to access, download, and prepare data sets for analysis as well as how to analyze the data from an equity perspective. Some of the data sets will include Pennsylvania educator employment, student demographics, student achievement, and student access to advanced coursework.