Hope and anxiety continue to swirl around the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
The hope stems from possible relief from high stakes testing that has dominated the time and attention of public schools across the country since ESSA’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), became law under President George W. Bush. The new law’s intention is to restore authority as much as possible to states and districts to determine the appropriate accountability for their schools. ESSA was enacted in December of 2015.
The anxiety, at least in Texas, comes from the provision in the law that allows states to stand between districts and the changes they feel they need to make. Texas has been a national leader in the implementation of high stakes testing, and many fear that the state is not ready to move beyond tests like the STAAR to determine the success or failure of students, teachers and schools.
In a listening session with local educators, U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to the secretary with the U.S. Department of Education, local educators were able to offer feedback on ESSA and other issues as the Department of Education announces the proposed rules for implementation of the new law.
Within the ESSA, Buck explained, there are three spaces for interpretation. First, in the writing of the rules: this will specifically outline what the law actually does in practice. A second space for interpretation will be guidance, in which the federal government will outline best practices and recommended approaches for implementation. Finally, technical assistance, wherein districts and states receive help from the Department of Education as they begin to build new funding, accountability, and other frameworks.
Proposed rules have been posted on the Federal Register, and will be open for comment until Aug. 1.
Buck and her colleagues have been on a listening tour around the country to gather feedback from the field as to what rules would be most helpful in their specific contexts. Because the goal of the law is to allow local districts to meet the needs of their specific students, Buck and Castro encouraged participants to share more ideas than questions.
“I know people have strong opinions and ideas about accountability, teachers, civil rights issues, and pre-k,” Castro said.
In the room were representatives from Northside Independent School District, Northeast ISD, San Antonio ISD, Edgewood ISD, Teach for America, two teachers’ unions, Eastside Promise Neighborhood and various nonprofit organizations concerned with education.
While Castro was correct, the room did have strong ideas, they led with their concern that none of their opinions and ideas mattered if the state government did not intend to hand power down to the district level.
Castro shared their anxiety, explaining that he was hesitant to vote for ESSA at first, because of the possibility of fixing outsized federal involvement with outsized state involvement.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the direction the state government has taken education,” Castro said.
Castro did eventually vote for the bill, but his sentiment was shared by many, particularly when it comes to accountability, where rigor increases regularly without increased state funding to support it.
“A lot of us in education feel like the accountability piece is not a two-way street,” said Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
Buck agreed that over-testing was a universal problem. Still, she said, the federal government had to be careful how wide they opened the door to get rid of it. Schools would be inclined to sweep low performers under the rug if they were not required to test them. Testing as a diagnostic tool should applied evenly across student populations, not used as a form of punishment, she said.
As more potential funds become available through ESSA, attendees wondered if a consortium of districts could circumvent the state government and go straight to the federal government.
Buck couldn’t answer that question at the time, but Castro hoped to see that sort of flexibility, because of the state’s track record of saying “no” to federal funds in various sectors including education and healthcare.
“When the governor makes a unilateral decision to reject funds, I feel like it hurts a lot of pockets of the states that don’t agree with that decision,” Castro said.
Attendees also suggested non-academic considerations when overhauling accountability standards. Mobility rates, community resources, and best practices in English language acquisition would change the way Title I schools and districts tested if they were given proper weight, according to those who spoke up. Teacher retention strategies and professional development were discussed as well.
On another topic, Castro agreed that the role of the single school counselor was inadequate for the needs of modern schools where students need both college guidance and emotional/social therapy in far higher numbers than once assumed.
Of course, for each strategy that could improve outcomes, a funding mechanism needs consideration. It is not enough to say that English-language learners need special provisions in their testing. Additional funding is needed to help them reach test-ready English proficiency.
The fight over the priorities of federal dollars has been intense, according to Buck.
In San Antonio, Castro pointed to the fight for Pre-K 4 SA as an example. When need-based funding results in special money going to some populations and not others, the public tends to react passionately.
“It engenders class resentment that I think is counterproductive,” Castro said.
Castro and others in his newly established congressional pre-k caucus feel that pre-k should be universal.
It begs the question: if the system assumes a middle class set of resources as the norm for each child, then won’t we always be fighting for entitlements, and stretching them beyond usefulness? Has the U.S. population evolved in such a way that we need to adjust our expectations about the needs of the average school child and how much it should cost to educate them?
After the listening session, I posed that question to Buck and Castro. For now, they felt that ESSA was a step in that direction. Not toward a new norm, but at least away from assuming access to middle-class resources.
“We’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all model,” Castro said.
Buck said that part of the goal of ESSA was to establish better, more effective uses of Title I funds. She is hopeful that schools will be free to reform both accountability and funding to fit the needs of their specific populations.