It has been a year since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA, replaced No Child Left Behind, NCLB, as the nation’s new K-12 federal law. States are working to implement their plans so that classroom teachers will be prepared for the changes that will become effective in the 2017-2018 academic school year. In a letter to all state schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos provided clarity to ESSA implementation instructing states to continue to move forward and that the Department will work to ensure that state education leaders have the state and local flexibility that Congress intended. States should continue to follow the timeline for developing and submitting their plans for review and approval and those are due on or about March 2017.
The new law provides flexibility on how states and districts get to decide how to intervene in their lowest-performing schools and those areas of education needing prompt attention, such as: children with disabilities and English-language learners. Since these areas focus areas require a new focus, due to low performance outcomes, I found it interesting that Betsy DeVos received criticism for responding, in kind, to the news media in February 2017. DeVos commented, "I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a "receive mode." They're waiting to be told what they have to do, and that's not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching."
I believe that Ms. DeVos was disappointed to hear that teachers have not felt free to explore the flexibility ESSA will not allow under federal low, or maybe they have not been asked about implementation of new strategies. The law specified that both parents, educators, and the community must come together and advocate for children, as opposed to waiting to be “told what to do” in order to apply any changes to teaching methods that would ultimately help struggling students improve. For example, project-based learning assessments might be a difficult concept to implement for teachers who have been rigidly focused on teaching the core curriculum, and assessment focus on tests that have been utilized for years, as opposed to a student portfolio of work. Perhaps it is also indicative that Principals and teachers have been ingrained with the accountability systems prescribed under No Child Left Behind, such as teaching to the test, that much training will be required to help shift the mind-sets of many educators in the public schools.
Lindsay Frey, who worked for Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, as an education aide when ESSA was being crafted commented, “Overall, ESSA offers states a chance to shift their thinking. States have so long been in compliance mode, the bureaucratic back-and-forth of, ‘Can I do science tests this way?’” Fryer said, “Now is the opportunity for states to figure out what they want to do and states will learn a lot from each other as these plans move forward.” In Virginia, they are working on a plan that incorporates chronic absenteeism alongside test scores in gauging school performance in hopes that ESSA will provide flexibility so that schools can work on closing the achievement gaps with minority students and children with disabilities.
Additionally, under the Trump administration, and in approving states’ ESSA plans, the president strongly supports expanding school choice. This plan of expanding federal funding to help students attend the private, public, or home school of their choice will require some renegotiating of ESSA’s Title I funding currently being allocated to specific states and districts.
The Center on Education Policy, a public education, advocacy group at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, executive director, Maria Voles Ferguson stated, “Given the range of state capacity, and states’ different K-12 priorities, ESSA implementation could look radically different on the ground from one state to the next. I think that there’s going to be a lot of different stories told throughout the country. There are bright-shining-star [states] that are going to run and do really interesting things, and then there will be some sad, not-great stories. It’s a little bit of survival of the fittest.”
States have several months until the nation’s overhauled K-12 law goes into effect, and state policymakers are still scrambling to settle-in with a foundation upon which to forecast their education systems under the blueprint laid out in ESSA. There has been a lot of political change and policy uncertainty, with the changes in the white house and the U.S. Department of Education, that it will be a while before the details and the impact of the new law’s theoretical perspectives at the top to actual implementation in the classroom.