President Barack Obama today signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorizes the nation’s primary federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Previously called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act when it was reauthorized under President George W. Bush in 2001, the law sets forth expectations for academic accountability, educator quality, and the use of federal funding for wide-ranging education programs.
After years of waiting for reauthorization, ATPE and many other educator groups are celebrating Congress’s abandonment of failed NCLB strategies and policies embedded in the Obama administration’s waivers, and we are welcoming the new ESSA with cautious optimism. ATPE is grateful to our Washington-based lobby team for helping us in our efforts to persuade Congress to pass a reauthorization bill this year and for sharing our input on the federal law repeatedly with lawmakers and U.S. Department of Education staff. We also thank our many state officers and staff members who traveled to the nation’s capital over the years to share their stories in the hope of improving the country’s premier education law.
Although viewed as a long-overdue victory by most in the education field, there are some who have criticized the ESSA, saying that it does not go far enough to remove the federal government’s role or that it backs too far away from test-based accountability measures. Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted against the bill, complaining that it represented “the same tired approach that continues to fail our nation’s children.” Sandy Kress, who is credited with creating the NCLB plan for President Bush and who shortly thereafter became a lobbyist for the testing industry, called the enactment of the ESSA “pitiful” in tweets this week.
This new “law of the land” for education aims to reduce the federal role in states’ education policies while ensuring accountability for educating students in various subgroups and closing achievement gaps. Ditching the controversial requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the ESSA gives states and school districts more flexibility to create their own accountability systems and interventions for struggling schools. As of next summer, it will nullify the controversial waiver system of recent years that has required many states, including Texas, to pursue reforms not often favored by education stakeholders, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. It also repeals the complex “highly qualified teacher” mandates from NCLB, replacing them with new provisions for “effective” teachers. As for curriculum and related matters, the ESSA requires states to adopt standards but prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from dictating what those should be. While Congress avoided putting ATPE-opposed funding portability language into the final bill, the ESSA does include a provision for a school choice pilot program in 50 school districts that would enable state, local, and federal funds to follow students from one school to another. With respect to testing, the ESSA keeps in place many of the existing requirements. States will still be expected to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, plus one high school test, but that test that could become the SAT or ACT based on school districts’ discretion.
In remarks during the bill signing ceremony this morning, President Obama called the ESSA “a big step in the right direction,” but added that the hard work would come with implementation. It is worth noting that many of the changes in the federal law will require similar actions by state legislatures and policymakers to be fully effective nationwide. For instance, the 2017 legislative session is the earliest opportunity for lawmakers to choose whether or not to tinker with Texas’s state STAAR testing requirements, which underwent a major overhaul in 2013 via the passage of House Bill 5.
It remains to be seen what short-term impact, in particular, the enactment of the ESSA will have on Texas’s pending effort to adopt a new state-recommended appraisal system for teachers known as T-TESS. The Texas Education Agency’s plans for T-TESS have been heavily influenced by strings attached to the state’s ESEA waiver, including pressure from the federal government to base at least 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations on student growth data. In a statement this week about the passage of the federal law, Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams said that “the rollout of our state’s new teacher and principal evaluation systems will continue, but without federal demands to include student test scores as a mandatory aspect.” Williams is resigning at the end of this month, but has already proposed new commissioner’s rules to implement T-TESS and repeal its predecessor, known as PDAS. Those rules, which were developed before the passage of the new federal law, are currently open for review and public comment through January 11. As drafted, the commissioner’s rules for T-TESS require teacher appraisals to “include the academic growth of the teacher’s students at the individual teacher level as measured by one or more of the following student growth measures: (1) student learning objectives; (2) student portfolios; (3) pre- and post-test results on district-level assessments; or (4) value-added data based on student state assessment results” starting in 2017. The proposed rules also specify that student growth “shall count for at least 20% of a teacher’s summative score.”
The one thing we know for certain is that big changes are on the horizon. As with our efforts to push Congress to reauthorize the ESEA, ATPE will remain heavily involved in the implementation work at the state and national levels. Making sure that the renewed national focus on lessening the outsized role of standardized tests is reflected in our state laws and policies going forward will be a top priority. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates from our lobby team.