WHY I DO NOT TRUST ESSA
By: Sergio Flores, BAT Board of Director Member
Despite the delight expressed by teachers’ associations’ leaders and other stakeholders about President Obama signing ESSA on December 10, 2015, I do not share that cheerfulness. Chiefly, ESSA keeps the unwarranted premises that schools are failing because teachers are typically underperformers; and that in order to correct that systemic problem a comprehensive accountability system is required. No less important, it keeps the neoliberal frame that validated NCLB and justified the arbitrarily punitive accountability system that has overworked, confused, and demoralized teachers to the point where many have left the profession; and that in the process has arbitrarily closed hundreds of public schools while allowing the unjustified multiplication of charter schools. Moreover, ESSA’s provisions on accountability and testing opens the public education coffers even more widely to corporations and profiteers. In short, public education is even more influenced by external agents while teachers and their profession continue being debased and demoted.
The rhetoric of significant differences with previous laws and the actual application of ESSA do not seem to correspond. For one thing, ESSA keeps the mandate to use standards like CCSS and compulsory testing aligned to it. The only superficial change is that ESSA demands states and districts to carry on a project to develop innovative tests to substitute the federal mandated ones. Another superficial change is on testing. Now states, not the federal government, will have to spend even more resources to comply with ESSA’s demand to design and sustain a valid testing system. Testing and the use of scores to judge will continue!
In this context teachers’ ability to raise scores and an accountability system based on those scores remain as the factors for evaluating schools and districts. States have to identify and intervene in the bottom 5 percent of performers, and be identified at least once every three years. States have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less, and where subgroups of students are struggling. Keeping with the same failed punitive approach in dealing with low performing schools, districts will work with teachers and school staff to come up with an evidence-based plan. ESSA will keep public school teachers and their schools trapped in an inescapable race where their arbitrarily and unsoundly calculated scores will determine their worth in an unproven system.
Just as with NCLB, states will monitor the turnaround effort. If there is no improvement, after no more than four years the state will be required to step in with its own plan --it could take over the school if it wanted, or fire the principal, or turn the school into a charter. Districts could also allow for public school choice out of seriously low-performing schools, but they have to give priority to the students who need it most. Just as during NCLB, complete schools will have to endure the shame of being signaled and judged. Why repeat what did not worked?
Overall, the neoliberal view of competition and choice that justified NCLB’s and RttT’s punitive measures stays. In this way, disregarding socio-economic context or human factors, ESSA’s provisions fall short of providing the necessary change to improve the quality of public education. Arbitrary and relentless accountability continues for public schools and teachers while external agencies such as corporations providing a variety of services, consulting, testing, or tutoring will have even more access to public education funding. It would be enlightening to find out how much of the public school budget ends in private hands.
Unsurprising, ESSA requires states to continue a monitoring and reporting of all schools and teachers using standardize testing. But cleverly, the complaint of testing being federally mandated and administrated is eliminated by giving this task to each state. States can choose their own goals -- a big long-term goal, and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address: proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates. As expected before, scores resulting from those evaluations will be used to determine school funding. A trivial matter –who administers the national tests?—became the focus of debate. I would like to focus the debate on the usefulness of that testing!
Like NCLB, ESSA sets impossible and arbitrary goals –having all students ready for college or a career as a mantra. Only this time, states are in charge to determine their own goals and means to evaluate success. Just like the previous laws, ESSA maintains the neoliberal vision including the privatization process that serves no educational purpose. In essence, ESSA is not too different from NCLB or RttT-- the problems, solutions, and new policies come from the same neoliberal frame that produced NCLB and RttT.
ESSA’s goals and policies are just or more ambitious and convoluted than previous laws. With the arbitrary goal of having everyone, including minorities and underprivileged students, college and career ready, ESSA continues “to measure progress against that goal and maintain a critical focus on educational equity and excellence for all. The law maintains provisions that require states to administer to all students annual statewide.” To do it properly ESSA requires states to incorporate at least four indicators such as proficiency on state tests, English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by subgroup, which could be growth on state tests into their accountability systems. Have we not done this? I believe we know enough. What we need is more intelligent interventions.
Not satisfied with the number of factors assessed as it was during NCLB, ESSA makes the process even more complicated. ESSA requires states to choose at least one additional indicator such as: student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate/safety, or whatever else the state thinks makes sense. In this respect ESSA turns the old accountability system into an even more time consuming, convoluted, and expensive process. Without valid reasons, ESSA asks states to devote even more human, logistic, and financial resources. Thus, ESSA overhauls this unnecessary, expensive, tried and failed, and unwarranted massive accountability scheme. With states and districts lacking departments to develop such system, one can only wonder who will provide such service and at what cost.
Is there going to be less or better testing? The law says it supports flexibility for states and districts while keeping high expectations for all students. However, ESSA requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty). Very importantly, ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95 percent participation in tests. The only examples of less testing are for individual cases such as dealing with eight graders’ math, the new regulations “permit a district to use a single, locally-selected, nationally recognized high-school assessment across the district in place of the statewide high school assessment. That is supposed to “reduce the amount of time students spend on assessments, allowing more time for teaching and learning. There are no indications of having less testing. The pattern shows that testing is evolving and becoming more computers based.
ESSA regulations ask states to develop computer adaptive tests. These are supposed to provide a “more precise estimate of a student’s ability with fewer questions than traditional tests.” The results, which will be reported, would have to be based on academic achievement standards. Who will develop these tests? How much money will it cost? What type of accountability would be in place to ensure these tests are reliable? As anyone can infer, states and districts will have to pay for testing companies’ services.
The end goal is for all states to develop or adopt a high-quality, viable, and sustainable innovative assessment system to evaluate their schools against adopted standards. This is quite a huge mission. Although it seems a good idea to give five years and an extra two more as extension, the overall goal does not seem to warrant such an effort. A key fact is that the pilot process states and districts to devote a serious amount of money and effort to this task. In addition, this overcomplicated process will keep states and districts busy and worried about monitoring rather than on focusing energy and resources on delivering quality education. If NCLB and then RttT with similar demands of measurable accountability did not leave anything to build on, what evidence or research supports continuing with this practice?
Since teachers’ ability to raise scores will continue being the key factor around which the successful implementations of this new wave of policies depend, ESSA takes the competitiveness to the teachers’ preparation market. From now on, agencies other than universities will be granted the right to give teachers accreditations. As a result, corporate reformers will have their hands on the last factor they were not controlling: teachers’ accreditation. With this new power granted by ESSA, corporate reformers now define what teaching is and what a good teacher looks like. With that corporate reformers control everything: the teaching profession and teachers themselves. With that kind of authority and power, teachers will have neither hope nor recourse. From determining requirements to become a teacher, to hiring, keeping, or firing, corporate reformers will have a tremendous influence and control.
As presented ESSA does not bring any new approach to anything done in public education since NCLB was enacted. Indeed, ESSA continues the neoliberal path. The law validates the premises that schools and teachers are failing and at fault; that competition and choice are necessary conditions to correct the chronic systemic problems; and that comprehensive monitoring and an accountability system that punishes and rewards based on scores are necessary tools for improvement and excellence. Evidently, the process of privatization continues unchallenged as seen with the imposition and implementation of CCSS, the new versions of standardized testing, and the unstoppable multiplication of charter schools. There is more influence on public education affairs by corporations and billionaires than ever before; and in this neoliberal frame teaching and teachers are perceived more as commodities --factors in a free-market process, than as public servants with a mission other than improving scores.
Who wins, who loses, who cares?