The latest effort to “fix” public education arrived on the scene December 10, 2015, when President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). President Johnson signed The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) as an attempt to ensure that every child had access to an education. In 2002, George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the fundamental principle that “every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you (educators) must show us whether or not every child is learning.” Today, ESSA aims to provide an equal educational opportunity to all students and to prepare them for college and career success.
My first reaction when I heard about the ESSA was, “There goes another president attaching his name to another acronym that supposedly will equalize public education for the masses.” As a former educator, I am skeptical that this effort is just another political Band Aid that sounds like it is doing something but probably won’t put a dent into parity among our public schools, either state-to-state or community-to-community.
I am not a pessimist, but I am an advocate for good teaching, adequate support services and project-based learning that lets children demonstrate critical thinking skills, develop communication skills and prepares all children for lifelong learning. If we master those three objectives as the curriculum basis for public schools nationwide, failure will not be an option. Teachers will be given the freedom to experiment with out-of-the-box teaching to achieve student learning. We will meet students where they are, and the effective educators will find ways to motivate students to learn from a level of respect for the students’ talents. Working with children on the skills they need throughout their school years and beyond echoes the insightful adage, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
What about testing? Critics of public education seem to lean on testing and test results as the only fair way to evaluate student learning and promote equality. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was testing-intensive; however nearly fourteen years of testing students from grades 3-12 has not produced the desired results. Many children have been left behind because of poor test scores, and remediation cost students exposure to the arts, music and physical activity. The emphasis on test scores helped widen the gap between school districts. If testing were seen as just one way to examine the results of student learning instead of the only assessment of value, who knows what academic progress could have been made by students in low-performing schools?
Time will be the judge and jury for the ESSA. The good news is that the ESSA has authorized a slight increase in funding for schools, from $23 billion in 2015 to $24.9 billion in 2016. Bipartisan support came about because ESSA gives states more control over how their public school systems are run, removing the pressure to conform to Common Core State Standards. More flexibility is allowed for administering annual assessments than with NCLB. The new law is more specific about which schools need intervention but much less punitive, except when high school graduation rates dip to less than 67%, or schools’ subgroups are consistently poor performers. Those schools are subject to a state takeover, though ESSA lacks formal guidelines for how this would be handled.
The reduced federal watchdog aspect of the ESSA offers mass appeal to the states, but I am worried that every state will not use their resources to ensure a quality education for all children. I hope that states will ask educators to sit at the table as they work on improvement plans for low-performing schools. I also hope that the politicians can step aside and let the professionals do what they were trained to do: provide the best education for every student.