ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act significantly improves upon No Child Left Behind by, among other things, giving more power back to states and local schools. We’re working to help policymakers and educators take advantage of the law’s new flexibility, especially when it comes to creating smarter school accountability systems, prioritizing the needs of high-achieving low-income students, and encouraging the adoption of content-rich curricula.

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Our many ESSA-related blog posts are listed below.


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The dominant narrative about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it shifts authority over schools back to state governments. But this belies a key feature of the legislation. Indeed, my biggest complaint about ESSA is that it leapfrogs the state government in important places, creating an unwelcome federal government-school district relationship.

My objections are both legal and practical.

Excepting for issues involving federally protected rights (such as discrimination), state governments are ultimately responsible for K-12. This is a matter of the Tenth Amendment’s reserved powers and its education-related case law, like San Antonio v. Rodriguez.

It’s also explicit in state constitutions, which give state governments authority over primary and secondary schooling and place them squarely on the hook for delivering results. This is why, when plaintiffs sue over school funding or tenure rules, state governments—not districts—are the defendants. It’s also clear from state statutes. State laws create school districts and delegate power to them. State governments can decommission districts, consolidate them, take control of them, create new ones, or authorize other entities to deliver or oversee K-12 education.

When a federal education law does an end-run around the state...

 
 

Like many, I’m convinced that what happens inside the classroom—curriculum and instruction—has as much of an impact (if not more) on student outcomes than structural reforms. For those who believe as I do, the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act has the potential to help states figure out how to hold schools accountable for student learning and what, if anything, to do about teacher evaluations. Let me throw out a few ideas.

“If you want more of something, subsidize it,” Ronald Reagan famously quipped. “If you want less of something, tax it.” During the No Child Left Behind era, test-driven accountability has too often stood Reagan’s maxim on its ear. Annual reading tests have practically required schools and teachers to forsake the patient, long-term investment in knowledge and vocabulary that builds strong readers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. High-stakes accountability with annual tests that are not tied to course content (which reading tests are not) amounted to a tax on good things and a subsidy for bad practice: curriculum narrowing, test preparation, and more time spent on a “skills and strategies” approach to learning that doesn’t serve children well. Under the new ESEA, states will still have to test students...

 
 

Earlier this year, when it looked like ESEA finally had a chance of being reauthorized, I came up with a graphic for assessing the accountability provisions of the various proposals. I argued that, at least when it comes to federal policy, we should think about accountability as having four dimensions: tests, performance targets, school designations, and interventions.

My goal was to show that each dimension had a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from heavy-handed federal prescription to virtually no role for Uncle Sam. An upshot of this is that proposals could vary in countless ways—for example, one could be to beef up the federal government’s role in testing and targets, while another only had Uncle Sam active in designations, while another only had federal mandates on school interventions.

In this post, however, I showed that the eleven major proposals naturally sorted into three categories: some were prescriptive across the board, some were hands-off apart from testing, and some pushed hard on targets while backing off on designations and interventions. The big question was whether there was a single combination of approaches on the four dimensions that could garner sufficient support in both Houses of Congress and at the other...

 
 

The ESEA reauthorization conferees delivered some good news for America’s high-achieving students last week. Absent further amending, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will include a necessary and long-overdue section provision that allows states to use computer-adaptive tests to assess students on content above their current grade level. That’s truly excellent news for kids who are “above grade level”—and for their parents, teachers, and schools.

Here’s the language, with emphasis added: 

The quality of state assessments matters enormously to children of all ability levels, but today’s tests do a grave disservice to high-achievers. Most current assessments do a lousy job of measuring academic growth by pupils who are well above grade level because they don’t contain enough “hard” questions to allow reliable measurement of achievement growth at the high end.

Doing that with paper-and-pencil tests would mean really long testing periods. But a major culprit is an NCLB provision requiring all students to take the “same tests” and (at least as interpreted during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies) barring material from those tests that’s significantly above or below the students’ formal grade levels. Though the intentions behind this decision were honorable—to...

 
 

As first reported by Alyson Klein at Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog, Capitol Hill staff reached an agreement last week on the much-belated reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The conference committee is expected to meet today to give its assent (or, conceivably, to tweak the agreement further). Final language should be available soon after Thanksgiving, with votes in both chambers by mid-December. If all goes as planned, President Obama could sign a new ESEA into law before Christmas.

So what’s in the compromise? Here’s what I know, based on Education Week’s reporting and my conversations with Hill staffers. (There are plenty of details that remain elusive.) I’ll display it via a new version of my handy-dandy color-coded table. (Previous editions here, here, here, and here.)

The Staff Agreement Heading into Conference

Note: Some of these provisions aren’t in current law—some were in the stimulus bill (like Race to the Top), some are in Secretary Duncan’s conditional waivers (like teacher evaluations), and some were in one of the bills passed in July (like Title I portability).

There you have it. Readers (and especially Hill staff): Tell...

 
 

Editor's note: Politics K-12 reports that House and Senate negotiators have reached a preliminary compromise on reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Many details have yet to emerge, but it sounds like the Senate bill prevailed, with a few key changes. 

We'll have more analysis when the complete bill is released, but preliminary thoughts from Mike and Checker are below.

Mike says:

As the contours of an ESEA deal become clear, the country has much to celebrate. This bill, if enacted, will finally turn the page on the No Child Left Behind act, a law with the right impulses and some clear impacts, but one that badly needed an overhaul. This compromise delivers it.

The bill will turn significant authority back to the states, where, under our Constitution, it belongs. This will take the federal boogeyman off the backs of education reformers nationwide, and will put governors and state legislators back in the driver's seat on accountability, teacher policy, and much else.

Yet the bill also maintains important transparency provisions, especially the requirement for annual testing in grades three through eight, so that parents and the public can continue to get key performance information by which...

 
 

Boehner is out! McCarthy is in! No, wait, McCarthy is out! Maybe Paul Ryan is in? Or even John Kline?!? What will this mean for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

It reminds of this famous Buddhist story:

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.

So will the current House chaos kill off reauthorization chances this year?

Maybe.

...

 
 

Here’s a line that deserves to be committed to memory by all who would seek to improve literacy outcomes for children. Maybe it should be tattooed onto our flesh: 

“One striking fact is that the complex world of education—unlike defense, health care, or industrial production—does not rest on a strong research base. In no other field are personal experience and ideology so frequently relied on to make policy choices.”

That excellent observation, from a 1999 National Research Council paper, is quoted in this report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. Author Mariana Haynes laments that literacy instruction in our schools “is not grounded in the science of reading development and learning.”  Another “striking fact” is that the Alliance’s report itself overlooks a great, glaring chunk of that science itself in making an otherwise unimpeachable case for research-based reading instruction. Writing in the Core Knowledge Blog, Lisa Hansel rightly observed that the report ignores the need for building broad academic knowledge across the curriculum as a means of raising reading achievement. “Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills,” Hansel lamented. “If...

 
 

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Thinkstock

Last week, Bellwether Education Partners analyst (and Obama administration alumnus) Chad Aldeman pointed out that I’ve changed my views on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2011. He’s absolutely right. What’s perplexing is why he would find this surprising. I assume that many foreign policy analysts reexamined their positions after 9/11, and that housing policy experts did the same after the Great Recession. Does Chad not understand that the unprecedented, autocratic, and quite possibly illegal actions of the president’s Department of Education have changed things a bit?

Yes, four long years ago, Checker Finn and I were still wedded to the “tight-loose” formula of federalism in education: Uncle Sam should be tighter on the outcomes expected from our schools but much looser on how states and districts achieve those ends. What we meant by “tight” was that Washington should require states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” either developed with other states (i.e., the Common Core) or unique to themselves. This was in part a response to the perverse incentives of No Child Left Behind—namely the mandate for states to attain near-universal proficiency...

 
 

As everyone knows, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act is closer to the finish line now than at any time in the past eight years. (The law was due for an update in 2007—soon after NASA sent New Horizons to Pluto. That was a long time ago.)

For a great overview of where things stand, it’s hard to beat this excellent rundown by Alyson Klein of Politics K-12. But that won’t stop me from trotting out my ever-so-popular color-coded table. (Previous editions here, here, and here.)

The items that are “up in the air” are those that the Senate, House, and Obama administration will wrangle over in conference.

A few caveats: First, some of these provisions aren’t in current law—some were in the stimulus bill (like Race to the Top), some are in Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers (like teacher evaluations), and some are in one of the bills passed this month (like Title I portability). Second, the administration may very well try to add more items to the “up in the air” column in conference. For instance, it might try to save...

 
 

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