Federal ESSA Offers Flexibility for States

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act originally signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). ESSA provides support to schools with groups of traditionally underserved students. While the ESSA requires certain data on student achievement to be reported, states and districts are given much more latitude in terms of what kinds of support and interventions are implemented. Utilizing this large degree of flexibility, states have focused on three main components intended to increase success among students: accountability, assessment, and teacher quality/effectiveness.

Under the ESSA, states are entrusted with allocating resources to low-performing schools and schools with traditionally underserved populations. States are tasked with creating long-term goals aimed at raising graduation rates and English language proficiency among its students. For example, at least once every three years states must identify their lowest performing Title I schools (lowest 5 percent) and high schools with graduation rates 67 percent or lower and intervene. These schools have four years to improve and meet their state-approved criteria or face even more rigorous intervention. Additionally, accountability is reflected in funding requirements for states: states must use 7 percent of their Title I allocations for school improvement activities.           

Regarding assessments, under the ESSA states are required to administer annual student assessments in grades three through eight and once during high school. Continuing with the theme of greater discretion among states, part of these assessments can be manifested via portfolios or projects. Furthermore, states can (but not required) set limits on time spent on assessment administration. Students opting out of testing has become a hot-button issue nationwide, but the ESSA dictates that at least 95 percent of students (including from underserved populations) must be assessed on an annual basis.         

Finally, the ESSA seeks to improve teacher quality and effectiveness, so states and districts are responsible for improving educator quality in increasing student achievement. Diverging from NCLB, the ESSA eliminated the “highly qualified teacher” provision which required that students from low-income districts not be taught by ineffective or inexperienced teachers at higher rates than their more affluent peers. The ESSA replaces this provision with requiring school districts to explain how they will identify and address disparities and must report and collect data on these disparities. Second, school districts must have policies in place to notify parents of their child’s teacher’s professional qualifications. The ESSA slightly reduced the amount of funds allocated for professional development. However, the ESSA authorizes federal funding for school districts and states designed to improve educator effectiveness. Some of this money may go towards reforming certification requirements, mentoring programs, and efforts to increase teacher retention at schools.

State policy has become a critical piece to ensure teacher and leader effectiveness within public school systems with the transition from the federal NCLB to ESSA.  Changing teacher and paraprofessional standards around professional development have been increasingly left to the states to determine, develop and implement with fidelity across their local education agencies.