The announcement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in Dec. 2015, ignited hopes of a new day in the education community. The law, the first federal overhaul of education policy since 2001’s No Child Left Behind, promised the end of over-reliance on standardized testing.
“(ESSA) really addressed some of my major concerns about No Child Left Behind,” said Sen. John Cornyn, who added that there was an overreach of government in the previous education policy.
Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd spoke to a roundtable of superintendents at an event at the DoSeum on Thursday. ESSA makes it very clear what is going away: federal control over the students’ assessment, curriculum, and resource allocation. But it is less clear what will take their place.
Cornyn and Hurd emphasized that now is the time for Congress to listen to the school leaders. Lawmakers will be mapping out the particulars of the law’s implementation to ensure that the school districts have the freedom to educate the kids in the best way possible.
“That’s what ESSA does. It empowers y’all to do your thing,” said Hurd.
For many in Texas, that promise seems to good to be true. Dr. Brian Woods, the Northside ISD superintendent, pointed out during the roundtable that Texas was the birthplace of test-based accountability, so it was unlikely that the legislature was eager to see it diminished.
“The inertia here is massive,” said Woods.
That concern is deeply felt in the business community as well, according to Denise Green, chairperson for the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce‘s education and workforce council.
Most of the superintendents stressed the importance of the local element in “state and local control,” which has been touted as a major component of the reform. Teachers unions and now independent school districts will be watching to see if the Texas Legislature is willing to relinquish the big and blunt instrument of test-based accountability.
Dr. Greg Gibson, superintendent of Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD, expressed concern about the state’s tendency to think that if a little testing accountability was good, then a lot was better.
Those who spoke agreed that testing was part of the evaluation equation, but that it required balance and perspective. A representative of the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers told the Rivard Report in an earlier interview that many would prefer to see testing used only as a diagnostic tool.
Another key point stressed by both Green and the superintendents was the need to be free to pursue experiential learning and career pathways. Cornyn said that he envisioned classrooms of the future to look something like the DoSeum’s Innovation Station.
As a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security and former CIA officer, Hurd reiterated the need for pathways to careers in tech fields. A well-trained national workforce is key to U.S. economic and military security, he said.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez brought up the need for clear pathways like this for students in low-income areas. College is not a given, but without college, many of them will be trapped in low paying jobs without security. The thought of college for college sake, or general areas of interest is not a luxury they experience.
“You can (afford to) be general with a middle-class kid,” said Martinez.
Kids coming out of poverty often need help connecting the idea of college to specific professions they plan to pursue, said Martinez. When a kid comes to him saying they want to be a plumber, electrician, or another tradesman, Martinez insists that the pathway to that career goes through some form of college.
This in turn requires a different vision of college than society might have had 20 years ago, said Martinez. In SAISD, this looks like further alignment with Alamo Colleges, which connects local students with local industry. Many students will attend college to obtain a professional certificate, not a four-year degree.
Another interesting dynamic for Texas school districts, and one aspect of the law not discussed during the roundtable, will be the ESSA’s support of charter schools. The law “provides grants to state entities and charter management organizations to start new charter schools and to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools…” according to a summary paper put out by Cornyn’s office.
Texas is already a friendly state for charter schools. Because the testing burden is felt most severely by schools with large low-income populations, many parents opt for charter schools to get away from curriculum that“teaches to the test.” Charter schools have the freedom to use innovative curriculum and methodology. It’s an approach that is working its way into some predominantly middle-class districts as well, where parents might otherwise consider private school for such curriculum. Charter schools must meet all testing requirements, however, their curriculum does not often prioritize test preparation to the same degree that public schools do.
It could be then assumed that the alleviation of the testing burden is key if traditional public schools are to maintain their student populations amid the influx of charters. It’s possible for schools districts to innovate under the current testing regime, of course, but much more difficult, since their survival is so critically linked to the test performance of students who are chronically absent, hungry, ill, and sometimes lacking a supportive or stable home environment.
Clearly the conversation is just beginning surrounding the effects of ESSA. In the meantime, Hurd and Cornyn will work towards dialogue and empowerment that effectively flows from the state legislature into the hands of local educators.
*Top Image:Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Hurd received a tour of The DoSeum’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) initiatives. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.