The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), essentially constitutes a wholesale rewrite of the largely unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. The new law goes into full effect beginning in the 2017-18 school year. While many in the education sector might be aware of the broad details of ESSA (i.e. that it promotes a more “well rounded” education by eliminating the ‘one-size-fits-all’ restrictions of No Child Left Behind and granting more power and accountability to the states), many are still in the dark about how it will directly impact education at the district level. Here are a few of the key changes you can expect to see at the local level:
One of the major selling points of ESSA was the way in which it allows for more flexibility when it comes to administering state-approved assessments. ESSA not only allows for more flexibility at the state level, but at the district level too.
While ESSA maintains the requirement of one statewide test every year in third through eighth grade, as well as one in high school, the law provides much more leeway regarding how these tests are formulated and administered. In some cases, it even allows districts to potentially bypass the state. For instance, ESSA includes a new provision that allows districts to administer district-selected — rather than state-selected — academic assessments, provided that these assessments are recognized and approved by the DOE. However, this provision does include some state oversight. Before these district-selected, nationally approved assessments can be used, the state educational agency (SEA) must determine that they meet the same technical criteria as the state-selected assessment.
The law also stipulates that once one of these specific assessments is approved by the state, any other district within that state is allowed to use it as well. This essentially means that the districts now have the power to select their own assessments and potentially set state precedents—with some state and federal checks and balances along the way.
When it comes to struggling schools ESSA grants the district, rather than the state, almost complete oversight and control. The law empowers districts to “locally develop and implement comprehensive support and improvement plans” for schools deemed to be struggling. The state’s role in these cases is to merely “provide technical assistance” to the districts dealing with struggling schools. The state is also required to set aside around 7 percent of its Title 1 funds for helping with these improvements, but the state is only authorized to step in where there is chronic or persistent failure.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools receiving Title 1 funding were required to staff each of their core classes with a “highly qualified” teacher (which in most cases meant a teacher who was state-certified, held a bachelor’s degree, and had demonstrated sufficient content knowledge). Under ESSA, the ‘highly qualified’ language was changed to ‘effective.’ This essentially lifts the prohibition on granting emergency or provisional certification to new teachers, making alternative pathways to teaching more accessible and allowing districts more leeway and responsiveness when attempting to quickly address teacher shortages.
One of the most significant aspects of ESSA pertains to the ways in which teachers will be graded and evaluated from here on out. One of the key requirements of the federal state-waiver system under No Child Left Behind held that teacher evaluations must be based in large part on their students’ test scores. ESSA does away with this requirement. While some states have vowed to keep their existing teacher evaluation systems in place—still placing emphasis on student test scores—others, including New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, already have efforts underway to reform the way they grade their teachers.
As this law rolls out, we will continue to see how this takes shape nationwide. Given the teachers union’s position against the way evaluations were done under No Child Left Behind, we’re likely to see some significant changes in evaluation systems from state to state.