Presentation today about ESSA

Today and handful of colleagues and I attended a presentation with Glenn Thompson,  U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district. The subject of the conversation was the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” or better known as ESSA (which is a re-authorization and new flavor of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA]). Rep. Thompson was presenting because he was a congressional leader on this new piece of legislation.

My single biggest takeaway from ESSA is this: If we want to use the levers of government and policy to improve education we now have 50 state-sized battles to fight instead of one massive federal fight. We need to target state capitols when seeking to achieve our goals of educational fairness and equity.

Now, for the rest of this post, I will discuss some other rambling thoughts that I had about the details of this conversation and of ESSA.

The conversation was interesting. It was a meeting where hopefulness and cynicism collided at many junctures —something that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when considering federal policy. My perspective on this meeting, and more importantly, the policy itself, are mixed. On one hand, the policy takes away many of the stifling regulations of No Child Left Behind (the previous ESEA re-write), which is a huge relief for many local school districts. On the other hand, many of the provisions of ESSA are almost guaranteed to be an implementation nightmare, seeing some of our key goals of educational equity as nominal steps in a no-direction.

Let’s start with the good of ESSA, but before we can talk good of ESSA, we need to first know some of the bad of NCLB. NCLB was top-down, bad education policy. Education policymakers, lawmakers, union leaders, teachers, parents and students — you name it — all knew this was bad law. It stifled schools with tests, pursued an agenda that would punish without helping schools that failed, and it helped usher in the neo-liberalization of education in the US. What I mean by the latter point is that one of the solutions that lawmakers used with schools that they (probably) knew would fail in the NCLB system was to privatize and outsource the education of those students. This means that now we are seeing a highly contentious mix of public, pseudo-public, and private schools in impoverished neighborhoods (a bigger conversation for later, but yes, I would say this movement is rooted in the ability to point to a “failing” school as an impetus to privatizing education).

So, based on these understandings, the good of ESSA is that it kind of acts of an NCLB mulligan, or an “our bad” by the federal government. The restrictions have been loosened and as Rep. Thompson put it in his speech, the feds now “trust” educators to do the job of educating. This is a great rhetorical shift in the right direction (but I should note the privatization piece didn’t go anywhere, it was the top-down testing and other regulations that were relived).

Moving from the good, a more lukewarm piece of ESSA is that that it moves the decision-making power of improving education to the states. I say lukewarm because it is nice that we at least are still talking about issues of equity, but history tells us that when we have 50 different states making sense of this policy and implementing it, we are going to get 50 different responses. The law does provide some detail and guidance for how states should respond, but it also provides enough flexibility where any expert worth their salt can predict what will happen next: Some states are going to take steps toward more equitable outcomes for their students, while others are going to find a way to wiggle out of the conversation and not do anything at all. Another problem that was pointed out in the meeting about this is that in areas where states or school districts will not have the capacity to make certain decisions, then private companies or providers (cough cough Pearson) will come in and sell them some sort of a standardized plan (catch the irony here?). This is almost a back-door way that education has been privatized, and in some areas of ESSA this seems likely to happen again.

However, the really bad of ESSA comes in a few other places. One, schools still need money in many parts of the country and, while this law does free up some Title 1 funding by making more of a “choose what you want to spend it on” style, in places here like Pennsylvania the money for school spending is still going to be scattered and often not nearly enough. Two, there are some wacky provisions in this law, such as the ability for states to allow alternate certification mechanisms that avoid colleges of education and allow schools to use teachers that find a “cheap” way to certification. As one scholar in the meeting pointed out, this is going to be a backwards mechanism that allows for disadvantaged students to get ripped off when it comes to receiving high quality teachers because these students will probably be the ones who end up with the unqualified individuals (a refrain of the past that might even get louder because of ESSA).

Other notes about the law include that it basically takes all power away from the Secretary of Education, has some interesting professional development and technology funding, and is going to undergo an interesting implementation process with a lot of uncertainties (ie. stayed tuned for more about this when it actually starts in 2017!)

In short, the best way to end this blog piece is to stay I had some fun at this meeting trying to rename ESSA in my head. I came up with the “Pass the Buck without Providing the Bucks” law, or the “Remove Arne from Power Law” or, my favorite, “50 states gonna do what they want” law.  But if I am really going to call this law what it is, it is this: It solved maybe half of the issues school districts faced by removing a mountain of needless restrictions and top-down ideas that had little buy in. Now we have to reorganize so we can get the other half we want: Appropriate funding for all schools and real reform that helps combat poverty through a number of programs (community development, sustenance, and education).