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4.5: Every Student Succeeds Act (replacing NCLB)

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    by Elizabeth Donoghue


    “No matter what your circumstance, no matter where you live, your school will be the path to promise of America. … [We are] challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations. … We will leave no child behind.” --- George W. Bush in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, September 9, 2004 . ("Text of Bush Speech", 2004)

    "We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education." --- Barack Obama in his speech, “What’s Possible for Our Children,” May 28, 2008 ("Text of Obama Speech",2008, para. 17)


    The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a major emphasis of the Bush Administration education policy. ("How to Fix", 2007) The law was meant to hold schools accountable for student progress, and, in fact, to expect that all children will be able to perform at or above grade level in reading and math by the year 2014. ("Key Policy", 2002; "How to Fix", 2007)

    After the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many educators and politicians loudly expressed their disagreement with the law and its regulations, while others lauded the accomplishments of successful schools around the country. The Obama administration began implementing its agenda, which was critical of aspects of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In 2015 President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB.


    The Pros and Cons of NCLB

    List of the Pros of No Child Left Behind

    1. It added structure to educational programs nationwide. 
    Although the standards were set by the states, No Child Left Behind became one of the first concentrated efforts to improve the standing of US students compared to the rest of the world. By creating standardized testing results, students could be compared via performance to identify learning gaps. That allowed more students to receive an individualized plan to improve their learning opportunities.

    2. It held teachers and administrators accountable for student performance. 
    Before No Child Left Behind, it was easy to write off some kids as being “bad learners” or “troublemakers.” With standardized testing requirements applying to everyone, the goal was to provide each student with a learning opportunity that suited them. If teachers or administrators could not provide that opportunity, the legislation offered remedies that would benefit students.

    3. Socioeconomic gaps had less influence with this legislation. 
    The overall goal of No Child Left Behind was to provide students in disadvantaged areas an equal opportunity to learn compared to other students in the US. Children with special needs could receive detailed IEPs. Low-income families received resources without a large budget commitment. Bilingual teachers were brought into communities where English wasn’t the first language.

    4. Teacher qualifications were emphasized during NCLB. 
    In past generations, the only thing required to become a teacher was experience and perhaps a license. After No Child Left Behind, there were incentives in place to encourage teachers to pursue higher-level credentials. Teachers with a better education, in theory, can teach their own students in a better way. The goal of these improvements was pretty basic: to get the best-possible teachers in front of students in every community.

    5. Resource identification became easier. 
    No Child Left Behind also made it possible for schools to be incentivized to find students who required extra help with their education. It wasn’t just about losing money if test scores didn’t “make the grade.” Free supplemental help gives a child a better foundation for life without requiring a family or household to find extra financial resources. Extra teaching assistants and other classroom assets could be directed toward these students as well, ensuring the best possible school experience.

    6. It gave parents a better understanding of their schooling options. 
    Many parents have their public school assigned to them based on their current address. With No Child Left Behind, families realized that they had more options than the assigned school. They could transfer students in-district to the best schools if there was room. They could go to a charter school if their district was consistently bad. In some areas, students could even go to a different school district to receive a better education. This process allowed parents to make better decisions because they had more information.

    7. Minority students could provide an equal contribution. 
    Even in school culture, there is a majority vs minority culture in place. By providing minorities with an equal learning experience, students could learn more about one another. They could get to know different cultures and ethnicities in the safety of the classroom. That learning support even included information about different religions. It was a process that allowed every student to feel like they were contributing to the learning process.

    8. It improved student test scores. 
    For the United States as a whole, No Child Left Behind brought about a general improvement in test scores since it was fully implemented in 2002. The test scores for minority students have shown some of the highest levels of growth since its first implementation. Although test score improvements have been happening since the 1980s and some may argue NCLB had no influence on this trend, it hasn’t hurt test scores either.

    9. Schools were required to report their data. 
    NCLB required schools, at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, to begin supplying an annual report card with a wide range of data. Student achievement information was required to be reported by sub-group demographics. Each school district had to break down the information on a school-by-school basis. In return, a $1 billion grant program was initiated to help states and school districts offer reading programs in K-3.


    List of the Cons of No Child Left Behind

    1. Many schools tied student performance to teacher salaries. 
    If students didn’t perform well, then teachers received poor marks on their annual review. That offered the potential of losing a raise or even a job because students were under-performing. Since teachers have no real control over who is assigned to their classroom, many felt like this process kept them from teaching. They felt forced to “teach to the test” just so they could protect their own livelihood. It became a process that was intended to help students, but wound up hurting many learning opportunities instead.

    2. The best students in a classroom were often ignored. 
    If a student could pass the standardized testing requirements and didn’t need much help understanding the school work, then teachers and administrators often “passed the buck” on these achievers. Parents were given homework and instructions in some instances so that the teachers could focus on getting the grades of the other students up to an acceptable level.

    3. The students with the worst grades in a classroom were often discarded. 
    Teachers and administrators would also pay little attention to the students with the poorest grades. The idea was that the best students would already pass and the students with the worst grades would never make it anyway. That meant many classrooms focused on teaching a core group of students that could potentially make the grade, leaving all other students to their own devices.

    4. It created teacher shortages in many communities. 
    In a large urban area, strict teaching requirements are not much of an issue. There is a large enough population base to find the necessary instructors. In small, rural communities, teacher shortage areas became a real problem. It is an issue that is still plaguing many districts today. Specific subject areas are seeing shortages as well. For the 2016-2017 school year, the State of Washington listed 18 specific subject areas where there is a shortage of teachers, based on reporting from the USDE Office of Postsecondary Education.

    5. Smart children do not always perform well on standardized tests. 
    Testing is not an accurate reflection of a child’s ability to perform. Some children know the material, but the structure of the test is confusing to them. Audio portions of a standardized test may be affected by the quality of the equipment being used. Something as simple as a malfunctioning set of headphones can be enough to change a student’s scores. Children with learning disabilities or special education needs were not excluded from the data either in many states.

    6. It changed the goal of learning. 
    In the past, a grasp of the material being learned was the most important part of the school day. After No Child Left Behind became law, the emphasis shifted to teaching students how to properly take a standardized test. This created a limited range of knowledge for an entire generation of students. They know enough to pass a test, but do not really understand the subject matter that they tested successfully on. It’s like knowing how to cook on paper, but not understanding how to turn the stovetop on when trying to make something in real life.

    7. The structure of NCLB was more about money than student learning. 
    Some schools just didn’t bother to care about what No Child Left Behind mandated. Since the only pull was Federal money, there were some districts that chose not to take the money so they wouldn’t be liable for the outcomes. In a December 2003 report by the New York Times, school districts in 3 Connecticut towns turned away a total of $133,000 to avoid what one superintendent called a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

    8. Teachers could be involuntarily transferred. 
    Districts that had schools which were poorly performing had the option to replace their teachers. In 2007, an addition to No Child Left Behind allowed school districts to go around existing contracts to involuntarily transfer teachers from their preferred school to one that was performing poorly. In larger cities, the new schools could be more than an hour away and the teachers would be responsible for the added commuting costs. This issue created many rifts between teachers and administrators and many households saw that rift as an argument about money and nothing more.

    9. It never really addressed the core issues behind poor student learning. 
    The No Child Left Behind legislation made three core assumptions about how students were failing to meet expectations: 1) that the curriculum was at fault; 2) that teachers and administrators were not performing as expected; and 3) that students were not spending enough time in a classroom environment. Factors such as large classroom size, poor building condition, or even hunger were not part of the legislation.

    10. School funding was driven into test-related subjects. 
    Students in schools that were struggling to reach NCLB score mandates funneled money away from creative subjects. Instead of funding art or music, private tutoring and after-school programs that worked on homework with students was funded.

    Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

    The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015, and represents good news for our nation’s schools. This bipartisan measure reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students.

    The new law builds on key areas of progress in recent years, made possible by the efforts of educators, communities, parents, and students across the country.

    For example, today, high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. Dropout rates are at historic lows. And more students are going to college than ever before. These achievements provide a firm foundation for further work to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes under ESSA.

    The previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was enacted in 2002. NCLB represented a significant step forward for our nation’s children in many respects, particularly as it shined a light on where students were making progress and where they needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, disability, home language, or background. The law was scheduled for revision in 2007, and, over time, NCLB’s prescriptive requirements became increasingly unworkable for schools and educators. Recognizing this fact, in 2010, the Obama administration joined a call from educators and families to create a better law that focused on the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers.


    ESSA Highlights

    President Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act into law on December 10, 2015.

    ESSA includes provisions that will help to ensure success for students and schools. Below are just a few. The law:

    • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America's disadvantaged and high-need students.
    • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
    • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students' progress toward those high standards.
    • Helps to support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators—consistent with our Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods
    • Sustains and expands this administration's historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
    • Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.


    The Pros and Cons of NCLB

    List of the Pros of the Every Student Succeeds Act

    1. It continues to advance equity within the K-12 public school population.
    Before the 1960s, the best education went to students who had connections, money, or both. After the U.S. government made every child a priority, the goal was to provide equal access to the systems that could help the next generation be able to read and right. The Every Student Succeeds Act works to uphold the critical protections that are in place for students who come from disadvantaged families. There are also supports in place to provide assistance for high-need students who may struggle in the traditional classroom environment.

    2. The ESSA requires all students to be taught to high academic standards.
    Before the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, individual planning for students meant that they would receive an education based on their evaluated capabilities. If you had a child in special education classes, then their requirements to graduate might be entirely different than a student in the school’s gifted program. This legislation mandated for the first time in the United States that all students in the country were to be taught to the same high academic standards. The goal of this process is to prepare more K-12 students for their upcoming career or time in college.

    3. It provides a vehicle for better communication between schools and parents.
    The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act meant that the vital information that students produce in the classroom are distributed to families, communities, and educators so that everyone knows where a student’s progress is at any given moment. The K-12 student receives updates about their progress as well. Although this has caused teachers, administrators, and parents to talk more often, the real benefit here are the annual statewide assessments that measure the progress of each child with the high standards that are in place for their future success.

    4. This legislation helps to promote local innovative methods.
    Different communities must approach education in a way that best suits the needs of their district and the families they serve. The goal of the initial laws passed in the 1960s were to create more equality through civil rights legislation. It provided grants to districts that provided services to low-income students, including money for library books, textbooks, and educational centers.

    Now the money goes toward place-based and evidence-based interventions that local teachers, administrators, and leaders create to encourage more educational opportunities. This benefit is consistent with the Promise Neighborhoods and Investing in Innovation programs that support public schools across the United States.

    5. It expands the investments made into preschools in the United States.
    The historic investments made into the country’s preschools over the past decade are formalized in the Every Student Succeeds Act. This option is a fantastic solution for many families because it introduces young children to a consistent routine and structure. Most of the supported programs teach kids a variety of social, emotional, and cognitive skills. They also get to practice language learning in a safe environment, giving families an opportunity to start getting ready for kindergarten.

    The Every Student Succeeds Act provides over $250 million in allocations for preschool grants. Although critics suggest that this amount is not enough to cover all of the needs for students in the birth-to-4 demographic, this figure is still significantly better than what was previously available.

    6. The ESSA maintains the same emphasis on accountability.
    One of the primary reasons why the United States continues to fall with regards to the quality of education that a child receives is because there was a lack of accountability in the system. No Child Left Behind took meaningful steps to correct this issue, but there were also unreasonable standards in place that sometimes required 100% achievement rates – a near impossibility for some schools.

    The Every Student Succeeds Act works to maintain the expectation that schools must be held accountable for the quality of the education they offer. This process works to create positive changes in the lowest-performing schools where students struggle to make progress. The expected outcome is to increase graduation rates over an extended period of time.

    7. The federal government can still participate through grant stipulations.
    Although states have the option to create their own solutions in the ESSA, the federal government still controls the purse strings of the grants. Updates to the template for grant approval went through in 2017 to encourage specific results. One of the most important changes made in the most recent update was to encourage the hiring of effective, in-field, experienced teachers whenever possible. Research finds that the best teachers typically look for employment opportunities away from the schools that underperform according to the local standards. This update encourages more funding to the districts who can encourage good teachers to come to the schools that need the most help.

    8. It discourages the use of test results as a criterium for teacher performance.
    Under No Child Left Behind, teachers were often graded based on the results that their students could achieve on the standardized tests. This issue caused many educations to teach subject information to the expected tests instead of providing a well-rounded approach that encouraged advanced learning outcomes. The Every Student Succeeds Act works to move away from the idea that a teacher should get a raise or not based on the fact that a random set of students could or could not meet particular expectations.

    List of the Cons of the Every Student Succeeds Act

    1. It maintains the status quo in many areas where previous attempts already underperform.
    Even though the ESSA does improve the accountability concept in education across the United States, the 1,061-page bill, which is about 400 pages longer than the previous legislation addressing these issue, does not radically vary from earlier efforts to improve outcomes. This law relies on testing to create accountability outcomes, which can be an unreliable way to measure the success or failure of a student. The only primary change in this area is that it shifts the responsibility of implementation from the federal government to the states.

    2. There is no effort made to address the root causes of inequality.
    Because the Every Student Succeeds Act emphasis accountability in the K-12 system by looking at testing scores and classroom environment, the root issues that cause inequality don’t get fixed yet again. When economic disadvantages are tied directly to the performance of a student, then the problems in public schools can only be fixed when there are ways to improve the standard of living in each community.

    Although the ESSA is better because it takes a critical aim at the test and punish strategies that many schools were using under No Child Left Behind, a few valuable programs won’t counter the adverse impacts that poverty has on many communities.

    3. It removed the stipulation for adequate yearly progress.
    Supporters of the Every Student Succeeds Act celebrate the fact that it provides more flexibility on the testing requirements placed on public schools. It also eliminates one of the vital areas of accountability that were used to ensure compliance with the expectations of No Child Left Behind. Under the ESSA, there is no longer the requirement to report adequate yearly progress on the test score gains from the student body.

    There are some exciting changes that could support a better classroom environment in the future. The preschool development grants for low-income families is one of the strongest components of the measure. It even includes an arts education fund. When the states are given the requirement to hold their schools accountable, then who holds the overseers accountable as well?

    4. There are more ways to mask inequalities in the ESSA.
    Poor families and their communities show high levels of resilience, but that is not enough to help them achieve better results. All of the schools that received an F rating in North Carolina had a student population that was more than 50% low-income children. In 2013, the U.S. saw low-income children, defined as living in a household earning no more than 185% of the poverty threshold, became the majority of students in the public school system.

    States will be testing 95% of children and intervening in the lowest-performing schools. Classrooms can then select the students who they believe will perform the best on the required tests, masking the results that the under-performing students achieve. Those who must take the test then feel like they are being given more work, so it encourages K-12 students with defiant personalities to tank the test on purpose.

    5. It does not stop the process of school closures in some communities.
    The testing mandates found in the Every Student Succeeds Act continue to make a retreat from the anti-poverty focus included in the original legislation from the 1960s. The Johnson administration said that poverty was the greatest barrier to educational opportunities. In cities like Newark, NJ, accountability doesn’t mean taking the Title I approach that was in the original spirit of the law. It involves more testing, additional school closures, and potential long-term trauma to the kids because they receive the blame for the outcomes instead of the adults.

    6. When schools close because of the ESSA, it hurts vulnerable students the most.
    The communities and neighborhoods that see school closures most often are the ones that need this resource available to them. When the city of Chicago closed almost 50 elementary schools because of issues involving performance, African-American students were the majority population in 90% of the districts. What is even more disturbing is that about 60% of the impacted schools had a high concentration of special needs schools.

    The answer from the ESSA is to replace the underperforming schools with charters. This educational approach offers mixed results through a preference for autonomy. Children with disabilities and those with English language barriers tend to struggle the most in this environment.

    7. It keeps the federal government on the sidelines.
    The obligation to education all children, no matter what their economic circumstances may be, gets weakened when the federal government decides to sit on the bench. The Every Student Succeeds Act creates a patchwork system where each state, territory, and district can potentially use a different system of accountability. This inconsistency creates the potential for unequal practices, which means the government has no way to intervene if there is resistance to certain kinds of reforms.


    “If we really want our children to become the great inventors and problem-solvers of tomorrow, our schools shouldn't stifle innovation, they should let it thrive … by using visual arts, drama and music to help students master traditional subjects like English, science and math.” --- Barack Obama in his speech, “What’s Possible for Our Children,” May 28, 2008 ("Full Text", 2008, para. 15)