Some Thoughts on the ESSA Act

Diane Ravitch published a book in 2010 that every educator (teacher, administrator, and faculty support person) should read, called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  In it, she speaks of the value of curriculum and standards, and the danger of using standardized tests to make definitive judgments against teachers and students.  She makes a valid argument against using testing as a sole accountability measure, and explains the degradation of the American education system that occurred as soon as standardized test scores became the main indicator or school progress.  NCLB did little to reform our public schools, and much to instill fear and loathing in our educators.

“The way tests were used in teacher evaluation, ... it became lunacy,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month (Klein 2016b).

My question is: “What ARE we doing?”  According to the American Federation of Teachers (2015), we are changing a lot with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.  I bounced that pronouncement off of Ravitch’s opinion, as a sanity check.

Ravitch (2016) summed up the good and bad of ESSA this way.

The good part about the Every Child Succeeds Act is that it spells the end of federal punishment for schools, principals, and teachers whose students have low test scores, and it restricts the ability of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to dictate how schools should reform. There is no more AYP (adequate yearly progress); there is no more deadline of 2014 by which time every student everywhere will be proficient, which was always a hoax that no one believed in.
The bad part about ESSA is that it preserves the mindset of NCLB, a mindset that says that standards, testing and accountability are the keys to student success. They are not. NCLB proved they are not. Since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, policymakers have been in love with the idea that this combination will cause a dramatic rise in test scores and close the achievement gap among different groups. It has done neither, yet ESSA continues the fable.

Ravitch’s ideas about education are similar to mine.  We both believe that strong curriculum and learning within authentic contexts (in other words, not learning about how to “game” tests) will help our students to be more successful.  In her book, she references Carol Jago’s book With Rigor for All (2000), in which Jago makes the argument that teaching the classics is still valid in the classrooms of the time, at a time when teachers were moving away from the canon of “dead white men” to more contemporary work.  While I am not sure I agree with all of what Jago wrote, I can agree that a strong, coherent, and meaningful curriculum can do so much more for students than a scripted curriculum that teaches them how to take tests.  Hopefully, with the passage of the ESSA, teachers can steer back to that type of teaching.

One of the reasons why they probably can do that is that teacher evaluations will now be based on multiple factors.  Student “achievement” (read: test scores) is still one of those factors, but now it is not the most significant factor.  As the Alliance for Excellent Education said, “States may use federal professional development funds to implement teacher and leader evaluation systems based on student achievement, growth, and multiple measures of performance and to inform professional development; however, states are not required to implement such systems” (2015).  The Secretary of Education is NOT allowed to dictate what evaluation systems should look like, which gives the states more autonomy to develop evaluation systems that make sense.

The ESSA also strives to ensure that professional development activities are not simply items that one checks off a list as “done,” but that they are developed with educators, available to all school staff, and collaborative.  That states can now decide how much standardized test scores will factor into accountability systems, and that AYP is dead, should also bring relief to teachers (American Federation of Teachers, 2015).  Another interesting development is that states and districts can now use interim assessments to develop a final summative score for federal accountability purposes, meaning that students are assessed throughout the year, rather than only once toward the end of the year.  Those results should return to teachers in a more timely manner, meaning that teachers can use those results to inform instruction.  That makes the assessments so much more valuable (Gong & Dadey, 2016).

Much remains to be seen, and the ESSA is certainly not perfect.  However, it does represent change that is intended to support students much more effectively than its predecessor.

This Educator’s Hopes

Now that LEAs can feel somewhat relieved about the death of AYP, waivers, and the US Department of Education’s death grip on their autonomy, I do hope that some things can happen now that could not before.

Standards-based Education

It is my hope that standards-based education will become more common.  Instead of teaching kids how to game the system and that grades are more important that learning, it’s time to finally assert that learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and intrinsic motivation are more important than one’s grades or standardized test scores.  It’s time to assert that students deserve an education that prepares them for college and career while also providing them the tools they need to be successful beyond school.  It’s time to listen to college educators and business people who lament that the young people they hire are not ready to accept the responsibility of self-directed learning, whether it be in the college classroom or the corporate cubicle.  It’s time to use assessment for learning, provide results in real time, and allow everyone time to be reflective – teachers and students alike.  It’s time to allow for remediation, differentiation, high-performance team making, innovation … and thinking.  It’s time to stop talking about this stuff, and actually make it work in the classroom.

Professional Development That Works

Next on my wish list is that better professional development will become available, for free, to educators at all schools.  PD should be continuously available, and should not be just something that people check off their list of things they did during in-service.  Instead, teachers should be able to develop effective professional learning communities, and should be provided the time they need to learn together and from one another.  Communications among teachers should open the closed doors of each classroom, in a figurative way.  Teachers should be able to observe each other more, and to advise each other more.  Teachers should in no way be in competition with each other.  They should instead feel they are in a partnership.  Instead of loading up a teacher’s day with class sections, why not hire more teachers and give all of the staff more time to meet, plan, and discuss their classroom situations?

Resurgence of the Humanities

Many history teachers, art teachers, music teachers, and those who teach subjects not typically tested for accountability have felt left out for a long time.  They feel that their classes are considered unimportant when the administration plans to have assembly during them, or when the counselors visit the class to talk about next year’s scheduling because what they are working on is not as important as the other classes that “count.”  If we want our students to be well-rounded, thoughtful, informed adults, we need them to learn to appreciate cultures, art, music, social sciences, and the like.  They need to learn how to write about history and philosophy, how to interpret art and music, how to appreciate cultural traditions, and how to recognize phenomena within society. These subjects have been ignored for far too long.

What Are Your Hopes?

I would love to hear from you.  Add a comment at the bottom of the page.

Resources
Alliance for Excellent Education (2015, December). Every Student Succeeds Act primer: Teachers and school leaders . Retrieved from http://www.rfsd.k12.wi.us/cms_files/resources/ESSAPrimer-Teaching.pdf
American Federation of Teachers (2015). Every Student Succeeds Act: A new day in public education. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/essa_faq.pdf
Gong, B., & Dadey, N. (2016, June). Using interim assessments instead of summative? Considering an ESSA option. . Retrieved from https://ccsso.confex.com/ccsso/2016/webprogram/Session4739.html
Jago, C. (2000). With rigor for all: Teaching the classics to contemporary students. Portland, Me.: Calendar Islands Publishers.
Klein, A. (2016, June 16). The every student succeeds act: An ESSA overview. Retrieved September 5, 2016, from Education Week, http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/every-student-succeeds-act/index.html
Klein, A. (2016b, May 10). Under ESSA, states, districts to share more power. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/01/06/under-essa-states-districts-to-share-more.html
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.