Drayton: Review of commentary on Every Student Succeeds Act

By Brian Drayton

The Every Student Succeeds Act is now the Law of the Land, and it is the subject of extensive commentary and analysis by wiser heads than mine. There has been general rejoicing because many of the most destructive or wrong-headed mandates of NCLB have been removed, though some people are having a hard time dancing with so many crossed fingers held behind their backs.

A good place to start, to get a sense for what the law contains, is this blog post by Alyson Klein at EdWeek: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2015/12/esea_reauthorization_will_the_.html.

Some positives jump out. First, music & arts and foreign languages are now considered “core” subjects. Second, the bill states that all students should have access to high quality preschool. Third, the requirement to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is eliminated (mostly), in favor of state-established benchmarks, on which the states need to report at intervals. In general, mandates and regulation are shifted significantly away from the federal government, and back to the states. The federal government is prohibited from creating or even (as I read it) encouraging anything like national standards, or nationally-shared standards or assessments.

Even with these improvements, though, the sky is not cloud-free; and the deeper one goes into the legislation, the longer the list of questions becomes. I should say right here that the thing is 1,000 pages long, and I have not read every page, much less digested it. So I may well provide readers with a chance to correct my understanding and thereby help inform others.

Many of the worst parts of the NCLB/RTTP laws (and predecessors since A Nation At Risk) derive from one of three roots. The first assumption is that there is “an educational system” in the United States, which is (for good and ill) not quite the case, under most meanings of “system.” The second is the assumption that ”standards and accountability” are necessary to a healthy educational system. The third is the assumption that education will be improved by regarding it as another market, or rather as another area of social life in which the Market, that blind god, should rule. I read through this law, and the various commentators about it, with these in mind. In this post, a first report: The emphasis on standards and assessments remains. The states are to design and report on them, while the federal government dictates constraints, including the requirement to disaggregate student results. States may use the Common Core, but the feds cannot require or encourage CC use. Testing is continued, pretty much at the same rate as currently mandated (in reading and math annually in grades 3-8, then once in 9-12 ; for science once in grades 3-5, once 6-9, and once in grades 10-12). The states are to set standards, decide on how to assess them, put in place action plans to respond to the results, and satisfy the Secretary of Education that the system is “challenging,” efficient, and “evidence-based,” a term which occurs frequently throughout the text. Schools are to be evaluated on the basis of three academic categories (state test scores, English proficiency, plus one other indicator) plus one other indicator of the State’s choice student engagement, career-readiness, school safety, or some other variable that can be justified. For high school, graduation rate needs to be one of the 4 indicators. States have to account also for participation rates on state tests.

As one blogger wrote, http://www.viewfromtheedge.net/?p=7268, "whatever you think this bill does or doesnt do, one thing is for certain. It WILL hold ALL students to high academic standards. How? Reasons…..
What this really translates into is a system that will force those of us who actually interact with students to somehow prove to people fifteen layers of bureaucracy apart from real schools that we are actually holding children to high standards . . . and that we can prove it because, you know, test scores.
However, when the test scores show that Joey at 11 years, 3-months, and 14 days of age is performing at a 10-year, 6-months, and 19 day-level, then, by-God, were doing something wrong to Joey! States will thus be forced to show the feds that they have appropriate carrots and sticks in place to prevent this from happening."

There is also some hint of distrust of higher ed (reminiscent of recent news from Texas: http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/11/19/3723876/texas-board-fact-check-textbooks/). The K-12 standards are to be aligned with entrance standards for state public high ed, but "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize public institutions of higher education to determine the specific challenging State academic standards required under this para- graph" (Sect 1111b(1)dii (I think)).

One bright spot, is that while all these tests and standards are applied for students, there is no mandate that they be used in any direct way for teacher evaluations. As Alyson Klein writes: (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2015/11/esea_reauthorization_the_every.html?r=309474035&preview=1) "The headline here is that states would no longer have to do teacher evaluation through student outcomes, as they did under waivers. And NCLB’s 'highly qualified teacher' requirement would be officially a thing of the past."