With Greater Power Under ESSA, State Education Officials Commit to an Era of Greater Responsibility
The adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act signified a new era in the education policy of the country. It shifted the responsibility of school oversight primarily to the states, rather than the federal government, for the first time in almost 15 years.
The success of the implementation will not only rely on the guidance documents to be released by the U.S. Education Department in the coming months but will also substantially differ from state to state. While state education leaders have committed to staying on track, not everyone is convinced that they will adhere to the strict accountability measures mandated by No Child Left Behind.
There is a particular concern that states which have not experienced improvements under federal oversight, or those without strong education reform advocacy groups, will neglect accountability, consequently harming their most vulnerable students.
Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, predicted that states with a history of effective education policies, such as Massachusetts or Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, will continue to do so. On the other hand, states that have not made progress even with federally mandated reforms, like West Virginia or Iowa, or those lacking strong reform groups, are less likely to persist with their efforts.
Under the new law, states will still be required to annually test children in math and reading from grades three to eight and report the results. States will have to provide information on students’ performance based on factors such as race, income, English language learner status, participation in special education, and others. Although test scores will remain a part of school accountability systems, states can determine the extent of their significance and choose other non-academic measures, such as school climate and safety or participation in advanced coursework.
The new law grants states the authority to decide how to intervene in underperforming schools.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, affirmed that this represents the beginning of a new era where states will have more control over education. However, he emphasized that this control also brings more responsibility.
Hana Skandera, secretary of the New Mexico Public Education Department, saw the new law as an opportunity with great responsibility.
Minnich presented evidence that states are committed to the hard work needed to ensure school accountability and turnaround, which was showcased through the No Child Left Behind waivers that 42 states and the District of Columbia have operated under in recent years.
The country’s governors are also in support of these changes, according to their advocacy group.
However, there are skeptics who doubt whether states will truly live up to the ideals of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
Even if state education secretaries and governors are dedicated to the work of accountability, the realities of politics could interfere with their school reform goals. Governors and sometimes state chiefs are subject to the whims of the electorate and must gain approval from state legislatures for significant changes.
At least three states – Ohio, Texas, and Colorado – have announced new education chiefs since the law was enacted.
Stephen Parker, legislative director of the education and workforce committee at the National Governors Association, expressed confidence that there will not be a significant divide between governors and legislators. He stated that the group’s priorities for the law’s reauthorization were aligned with the National Council of State Legislators.
Advocates have expressed concern about specific changes that are forthcoming. Aldeman is mainly worried about the potential abandonment of strong academic standards, rigorous accountability measures, and teacher evaluations connected to student test scores.
Several states have already withdrawn from the more demanding Common Core State Standards or the multi-state testing consortia without the new law’s explicit prohibition of federal interference in the curriculum.
Aldeman also believes that the political climate does not favor stronger accountability measures in most places.
When designing their own accountability measures, states will have the option to use measures of student growth on tests or more basic measures of student proficiency.
Aldeman stated the importance of identifying those who are not contributing to the growth of students.
Parker expressed that with the new flexibility provided by the bill, governors can set ambitious yet attainable goals.
He also mentioned that there is some concern about the possibility of regression, but he believes that this law should serve as a starting point rather than a limitation.
There may be changes in teacher evaluations.
While leaders from North Carolina, Wisconsin, and New Mexico expressed their commitment to maintaining teacher evaluations based on test scores, Aldeman suggested that there may be changes in other states.
In fact, this change is already happening as New York announced that student test scores will not be used for teacher evaluations.
One positive aspect of all of this is the emergence of reform groups in education.
Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, the executive director of the Policy Innovators in Education Network, explained that these advocacy groups have gained significant influence in the past decade.
Her organization, which started with 15 organizations in 12 states, now connects over 70 groups in 31 states.
The growth of these groups and their ability to keep advocates in each state informed about developments elsewhere will be crucial in maintaining pressure on legislators and policymakers.