This has certainly been a busy week for changes in education policy. The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and today was signed into law by President Obama. This is a long overdue revision of No Child Left Behind, which was seriously flawed from its inception in 2001, and proof that it takes almost 15 years to achieve “bipartisan reform” at the federal level.
Lawmakers have been congratulating themselves on a job well done- the art of compromise is not dead in Congress. No, both sides of the aisle now have an agreed upon bill that can be complained about equally. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was so pleased, he announced that the President can now wrap this bill up in a festive bow as a Christmas gift to the nation’s 50 million school children (someone needs to remind Mitch that not all children celebrate Christmas). Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was quick to remind that NCLB could have been revised many times over the years if not for the blockage and filibustering by the GOP. It’s akin to the passive-aggressive holiday conversations heard in most American homes.
ESSA has many new provisions, but I’m not sure how many of them will actually affect students. The most notable shift is the transfer of power from the U.S. Department of Education back to the individual states. Standardized testing will still be a strong focus, although teacher evaluations will no longer be directly linked to those outcomes. But the U.S. DoE will still require a 95 percent participation rate for testing, holding Title I funds hostage if that benchmark is not met. Each state will now be charged with developing their own standards and accountability protocols, which need to be approved by the U.S. DoE. They will have to identify the lowest performing schools and provide supports where needed. Good or bad, it sounds like the states just got an enormous policy-making project dumped on them. It will be interesting to see what changes each state will make without the shackles or guidance of strong federal oversight.
The ESSA also eliminates the requirement of states to adopt Common Core Standards, which opens the door to implementing alternative standards nationwide. Here in New York, it seems change is already afoot. Governor Cuomo received the final report from his Common Core Task Force today which make outstanding recommendations for statewide reform. These recommendations include establishing new high-quality standards, revisiting curriculum development, and significant testing protocol reform. It also makes very clear, that until these new mandates are in place and are proven to be effective, test scores shall not be used in individual teacher or student evaluations.
This will surely appeal to public school teachers and their advocacy groups, but how will it impact the Opt-Out movement? Will teachers continue to support this movement if their job security is no longer contingent on unfair test outcomes? It’s clear that ESSA is still test-centric, but the control over the mandatory tests is now in the hands of the states, who can now make their own laws on Op-Out. It is still unclear how states will balance this, while still meeting the 95 percent participation benchmark to receive Title I funding. If Cuomo actually acts on the recommendations given by the task force, the Opt-Out movement might not be as necessary. But there might not have even been a task force to address the public mistrust of the NYSED if not for the efforts of the Opt-Out movement. We now have to wait and see what the Governor’s course of action will be. It has the potential to be a real game-changer in New York State, given the new flexibility provided in Every Student Succeeds.
Amanda Lefer, Family and Community Outreach Associate at C3S