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.


Our many ESSA-related blog posts are listed below.

Fordham's ESSA experts:

The whole point of the Every Student Succeeds Act was to revert financial and regulatory authority back to states after No Child Left Behind’s era of federal supremacy. In addition to rolling back the Education Department’s manifold oversight powers, though, the law also takes affirmative steps to grant states more flexibility to achieve their desired educational ends. Case in point: The good folks over at Chiefs for Change have released a paper zeroing in on an unsung ESSA wrinkle that allows states to set aside up to 3 percent of their federal Title I funding for so-called “Direct Student Services.” These funds, which must be earmarked for districts with large percentages of underperforming schools, can include online course access, tutoring, school choice programs, and the like. If every state availed itself of this perk, it could free up $425 million per year. That buys an awful lot of state autonomy.

Last week, we told you about “School Money,” NPR’s ongoing examination of educational finance in districts across the country. In addition to long, national entries, the organization has also filed evocative dispatches from its affiliate stations in different states. Boston’s WGBH featured a gloating segment on how Massachusetts...

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a full committee hearing titled “ESSA Implementation in States and School Districts: Perspectives from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the first of a series of oversight hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander delivered an opening statement to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and asked Secretary King two rounds of questions. What follows is the transcript of these talks.

Of particular interest to those of us at Fordham (besides the very important back-and-forth about the appropriate federal role in education and the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches) is the issue of flexibility around eighth-grade math assessments for advanced students. That is addressed toward the end of the transcript.


Senator Alexander Opening Statement

Mr. Secretary, as you know, I urged the president to nominate an education secretary because I thought it was important to have a confirmed secretary accountable to the United States Senate when the department was implementing the new law fixing No Child Left Behind.

You have sworn to discharge your duties faithfully. That is your oath of office, and...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires a “negotiated rulemaking” process whenever the Department of Education issues regulations under parts of the law pertaining to assessments, academic standards, and several other topics. This process requires a panel of experts, which the agency assembled in March. Their work thus far (they’ve met twice) has revealed major problems on the regulatory front concerning gifted and high-achieving students. These issues need immediate attention, including close scrutiny by the lawmakers who crafted ESSA.

As Education Week explains the process, panel members “essentially get together in a room and try to hammer out an agreement with the department. If the process fails, which it often does, the feds go back to the drawing board and negotiate through the regular process, which involves releasing a draft rule, getting comments on it, and then putting out a final rule.” The Department of Education assists this process with issues papers (which provide background), discussion questions, and draft regulatory language that the panel can edit based on its discussions.

Last week, the group tackled assessments, an area of ESSA that directly affects gifted and high-achieving students. Unfortunately, in the twenty-plus pages of draft regulations and seven issue papers that accompanied those discussions,...

Way back in the early days of the accountability movement, Jeb Bush’s Florida developed an innovative approach to evaluating school quality. First, the state looked at individual student progress over time—making it one of the first to do so. Then it put special emphasis on the gains (or lack thereof) of the lowest-performing kids in the state.

Many of us were fans of this approach, including the focus on low-achievers. It was an elegant way to highlight the performance of the children who were most at risk of being “left behind,” without resorting to an explicitly race-based approach like No Child Left Behind’s. [[they were virtually concurrent; I think it’s OK]]

Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners recently interviewed one of the designers of the Florida system, Christy Hovanetz, who elaborates:

By focusing on the lowest-performing students, we want to create a system that truly focuses on students who need the most help and is equitable across all schools. We strongly support the focus on the lowest-performing students, no matter what group they come from.

That does a number of things. It reduces the number of components…within the accountability system and places the focus on students who truly need the...

Lisa Hansel

Last week, we encouraged state policy makers and educators to rethink what it takes to develop strong readers and the signals sent to schools by accountability measures. The bottom line: reading comprehension is a slow-growing plant, and the demand for rapid results on annual tests may be encouraging poor classroom practice—giving kids a sugar rush of test preparation, skills, and strategies when a well-rounded diet of knowledge and vocabulary is what’s really needed to grow good readers. Assessment and evaluation policy must ensure that these long-term investments in the building blocks of language growth are rewarded, not punished. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to do exactly that.

States also have the freedom to rethink teacher accountability. Because broad, general knowledge builds broad, general reading comprehension ability, school-wide accountability for reading makes far more sense than individual teacher accountability. Every school subject builds the knowledge base that contributes to a child’s reading comprehension ability (you need to know some science to make sense of a science text; history to make sense of a history text, etc.).

Take the comparatively simple task of teaching students to decode. At a minimum, it requires K–2 teachers. For...

Lisa Hansel

In the past two decades, something extraordinary has happened with very little fanfare: The reading ability of our lowest-performing children has increased significantly. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), between 1990 and 2012, the scores of nine-year-olds at the tenth and twenty-fifth percentiles increased by roughly two grade levels (about twenty points). For those children, those gains aren’t just impressive—they’re potentially life-changing.

At the same time, there has been a fourteen-point gain (a little more than a grade level) among fourth graders at the fiftieth percentile and a mere six-point gain among those at the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles.

What’s causing this long-term trend of much greater gains among lower-performing students than higher-performing ones? That’s hard to say. There are many plausible explanations, but one that seems likely is that K–2 teachers have simply gotten better at teaching “decoding” (learning to sound out words). Nationwide, there’s been an increased focus on evidence-based practices, including high-profile initiatives like the National Reading Panel report and Reading First. Both stressed that children must be explicitly taught how to decode, and most early reading programs—and, more significantly, teachers—seem to have gotten the message.

But decoding is only the...

Way back in the days of NCLB, testing often existed in a vacuum. Lengthy administration windows created long delays between taking the test and receiving results from it; many assessments were poorly aligned with state standards and local curricula; communication with parents and teachers was insufficient; and too much test preparation heightened the anxiety level for teachers and students alike. These issues largely prevented assessments from being used to support and drive effective teaching and learning. That doesn’t mean just state tests, either, but rather the full range of assessments given during the year and across curricula.

But the new federal education law creates a chance for a fresh start. While ESSA retains yearly assessment in grades 3–8 and once in high school, the role of testing has changed. States are now empowered to use additional factors besides test scores in their school accountability systems, states may cap the amount of instructional time devoted to testing, funding exists to streamline testing, and teacher evaluations need no longer be linked to student scores. These changes may mean less anxiety, but that won’t equate to better outcomes unless significant reforms occur when states design their new assessment systems.

A new report from the Center...

If you care about state education policy and/or the new federal education law, you ought to spend some time doing three things. First, consider how the performance of schools (and networks of schools) needs to be assessed. Second, read the short Fordham report At the Helm, Not the Oar. Third, encourage your favorite state’s department of education to undertake an organizational strategic planning process.

All three are part of a single, important exercise: figuring out what role the state department of education must play in public schooling.

By now, everyone knows that ESSA returns to states the authority to create K–12 accountability systems. So it’s worth giving some thought to what, exactly, schools and districts should be held accountable for. What do we want them to actually accomplish?

But even if we get clear on the “what,” the “who” and “how” remain. Which entity or entities should be tasked with this work, and how should they go about it?

In At the Helm, which I co-wrote in 2014 with Juliet Squire, we argue that there are lots and lots of things handed to state departments of education (also known as state education agencies, or “SEAs”) that could be better achieved elsewhere....

Joanne Weiss

On February 2, I had the privilege of being a judge for the Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition. It’s widely known that I’m a fan of using competition to drive policy innovation, and this competition did not disappoint. Fordham received a stunning array of proposals from teachers, students, state leaders, and policy makers.

But before we turn to the insights buried in these pages, I want to praise the competition’s conception, which mirrored the process that states should replicate as they design their own accountability systems. Contestants explained how their proposed accountability systems would support a larger vision of educational success and spur desired actions. They laid out their design principles—attributes like simplicity, precision, fairness, and clarity. They defined the indicators that should therefore be tracked, and they explained how those indicators would roll up into ratings of school quality. Finally, they laid out how each rating would be used to inform or determine consequences for schools. All decisions were explained in the context of how they would forward the larger vision.

Together, these proposals represent a variety of both practical and philosophical approaches to accountability system design. Here are the five major themes I found most noteworthy.

1. The...

Michael Hansen

I walked away from Fordham’s School Accountability Design Competition last Tuesday pleasantly surprised—not only at the variety of fresh thinking on accountability, but also at how few submissions actually triggered the “I think that’s illegal” response. I left encouraged at the possibilities for the future.

The problem of one system for multiple users

Having done some prior work on school accountability and turnaround, I took great interest in the designs that came out of this competition and how they solved what I’m going to call the “one-system-multiple-user” problem. Though the old generation of systems had many drawbacks, I see this particular problem as their greatest flaw and the area where states will most likely repeat the mistakes of the past.

Basically, the one-system-multiple-user problem is this: The accountability design is built with a specific objective in mind (school accountability to monitor performance for targeted interventions) for a single user (the state education office); but the introduction of public accountability ratings induces other users (parents, teachers, district leaders, homebuyers, etc.) to use the same common rating system. Where the problem comes in is that not all user groups have the same objective; indeed we expect them to have different purposes in...