President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) this week.
The new legislation reauthorizes federal law governing K-12 public education.
In 1965 we called it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Until today we called it No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And now after a much-hyped signing ceremony, the most definitive thing we can say about it is this: federal education policy has a new name.
Seriously. That’s about it.
Does it reduce the federal role in public schools? Maybe.
Does it destroy Common Core State Standards? Possibly.
Is it an improvement on previous policies? Potentially.
Will it enable an expansion of wretched charter schools and unqualified Teach for America recruits? Likely.
The problem is this – it’s an over 1,000 page document that’s been open to public review for only two weeks. Though it was publicly debated and passed in the House and Senate, it was finalized behind closed doors and altered according to secure hurried Congressional votes. As such, the final version is full of legal jargon, hidden compromise, new definitions and verbiage that is open to multiple meanings.
How one reader interprets the law may be exactly the opposite of how another construes it.
Take the much-touted contention that the ESSA reduces the federal role in public schools. Even under the most positive reading, there are limits to this freedom.
The document continues to mandate testing children each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It also mandates academic standards and accountability systems. However, what these look like is apparently open to the states.
The Secretary [of Education] shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.That seems pretty clear. The federal government will not be able to tell states what academic standards to adopt or how student test scores should be used in teacher evaluations.
But it also says that states will have to submit accountability plans to the Department of Education for approval. It says these accountability plans will have to weigh test scores more than any other factor. It says states will have to use “evidence-based interventions” in the schools where students get the lowest test scores.
That sounds an awful lot like the test-and-punish system we have now.
What if your state decides to take a different road and reject the high stakes bludgeon approach to accountability? In that case, some readers argue schools could lose Title I funds – money set aside to help educational institutions serving impoverished populations.
Will that actually happen? No one knows.
It may depend on who will be President in 2017 and whom that person picks as Secretary of Education. And even if the Feds try to take advantage of these potential loopholes, the matter could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
What about Common Core?
Some readers interpret the new law as destroying forever the possibility of national academic standards. If states are allowed to pick their own standards, it is highly unlikely they’ll all pick the ones found in the deeply unpopular Common Core. However, the law does force each state to have academic standards of some kind, and it defines what those standards must look like. One interpretation of this is that they must look a lot like the Common Core.
They must be “state-developed college- and career-ready standards.” You read that right – “College and career ready.” That’s the Common Core catchphrase. If someone says they want to eat lunch at “the golden arches,” they haven’t said McDonalds, but you know they’re craving a Big Mac.
Will the Fed allow states to choose standards radically different than the Core? Again only time and – possibly – the courts can tell.
This same problem occurs throughout the document. As the public painstakingly combs through it, new legal wiggle room may be found. And I am not so naive as to suppose we’ve found all of the loopholes yet. Some of these may be the result of poorly chosen wording. Others may be purposefully hidden time bombs waiting for opportunists to exploit.
This uncertainty about exactly what the ESSA will eventually mean for our public schools may help explain the range of reactions to the formative law – from ecstasy to despair to shrugs and snores.
I’m not sure what to think of the thing, myself. I started the whole process disgusted but came around to accepting it if the final result was any kind of improvement over previous legislation. And now that it’s the law of the land, I look at this Frankenstein’s monster of a bill – stitched together pieces of mystery meat – and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I still hope it will live up to the limited promise it holds to bring us some relief from NCLB. But I admit this thing could go sour. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.
Which brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with this law that no one seems to be talking about.
Education needs reformed. We need to repeal the bogus policies that have been championed by the 1% and their lapdog lawmakers. We need to get rid of test-based accountability. We need to trash high stakes testing, Common Core, value added measures, charter schools and a host of other pernicious policies. We need to initiate a real anti-poverty program dedicated to attacking the actual problem with our schools – inequality of resources.
But more than any of that, we need to reform our government.
We need to find a better way to make our laws. The process that shat out this ESSA must go.
Think about it. No Child Left Behind was an abject failure by any metric you want to use. It didn’t close achievement gaps – it increased them. And the major policy of this law – annual standardized testing – remains intact in the reauthorization!
There has been massive public outcry against annual testing. Parents are leading an exponentially growing civil disobedience movement shielding their children from even taking these assessments. Everyone seems to agree that we test kids too much – even President “I’ll-veto-any-bill-that-deletes-testing” Obama.
Yet our legislators did next to nothing to fix this problem.
Instead preference was given to lobbyists and corporatists interested in making a buck off funding set aside to educate children. The focus was on smaller government – not better government. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but they aren’t exactly one-and-the-same, either.
This can’t continue if we are to keep pretending we have a representative Democracy. The voice of lobbyists must not be louder than voters. Money must be barred from the legislative process. Demagoguery must not overshadow the public good. We need transparency and accountability for those making our laws.
Until that happens, we will never have a sound and just education policy, because we don’t have a sound and just government.
Unfortunately, that is the biggest lesson of the ESSA.