Wednesday, December 2, 2015

ESSA Gets "Developing" on My Rubric

The final draft of the "No Child Left Behind" rewrite is heading to Congress for a vote. With another persuasive title, the "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA) takes one step forward from the two steps back taken with "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) and "Race to the Top" (RTTP).

I really think we should take some inspiration from IKEA for bill naming schemes. I'm just not sure every member of Congress read all 670 pages of NCLB. I wonder how many just looked at the title and thought, "This sounds emotionally compelling. I can't vote against this!" But I digress.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC BY 2.0
The ESSA hands over substantial authority from the federal government over to states and districts. It also sucker punches Arne Duncan's legacy by limiting the power and role of the U.S. education secretary. If the bill gets signed, the federal education secretary will no longer be able to "push" for a particular set of standards to be adopted (e.g. Common Core, NGSS) nationally. 

Tip of the hat: under ESSA, the federal government can no longer order states to "take drastic action" against schools with low test scores. They can't shut schools down and they can't transform public schools into charters. Sorry fans of the parent-trigger law, I can't support corporate-backed privatization under the guise of parent empowerment. The strategies supported to turn schools around in "trigger" legislation have no proof they work and are not evidence-based. "Good" ideas applied as a band-aid with no basis in research often fail very hard. I suggest advocates of the parent-trigger law instead come up with ways to bolster PTA participation and engage their respective communities before hastily wiping out entire institutions with rich histories.

Under the ESSA, there will still be standardized testing for students from 3rd to 8th grade and in high school. That's unfortunate and a damn shame. It's nearly 2016 and our policies still push for children to be assessed by age group versus skill level. Rather than prioritizing personalized learning, we're still asking for annual assessment data with no significant plan in-hand to act on said data. Our students are already getting tested by their respective teachers and by interim assessments administered by their schools and districts. Our policies today incentivize over-assessment, when they really should be written to incentivize educators to analyze and act on data in real-time.

To balance the standardized testing, one part of the ESSA might actually satisfy the opt-out movement: for states that allow it, parents have the right to opt their children out of these exams. Schools need to show a 95% test participation rate. For schools that don't, the state gets to "decide" what to do. And there's nothing in ESSA about stopping or limiting the opt-out movement growing nationally. Sounds deliberately vague.

As a former educator deeply invested in education, I think this bill is a short-term win for educators, parents, and students, but the hard work remains ahead. The opt-out grassroots campaign is gaining popularity. College students are no longer seeking teaching professions. Clearly, legislators are unofficially acknowledging there's an elephant in the room, and they'd rather deal with it after election season. Or maybe this would be significantly easier to address if a front-runner presidential candidate got serious and deliberate about their own education policy. One-off statements about equal access to quality education and the "original role" of charters don't count Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton. Let's hear a real plan.

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