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What will the new law change? woodleywonderworks, CC BY

Why Every Student Succeeds Act still leaves most vulnerable kids behind

For a decade, congressional attempts to revise the embattled 2001 No Child Left Behind Act – a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – hit a brick wall.

On December 10 2015, that changed. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by the House (359-64) and Senate (85-12), got President Obama’s signature.

Will the Every Student Succeeds Act live up to its name and assure equal educational opportunity for every one of America’s 50 million public school children?

As educators with both professional and personal (Felicity Crawford as special education teacher-educator, and Mary Battenfeld as a historian and urban public school parent) stakes in K-12 policy and practice, we think the answers range from certainly, in some ways, to a clear no.

The provisions of this 1,061-page bill (about 400 more than NCLB) do not vary radically from the “accountability through testing” mandates that have marked federal education policy for the last 14 years. The main difference is that the ESSA hands the educational accountability ball from the federal government to the states.

Every Student Succeeds is better, because it rightly takes aim at test and punish strategies, and creates some valuable programs. But ESSA, like NCLB, emphasizes K-12 accountability over root causes of educational inequality. And the new law flies against history’s lesson that federal oversight is a good thing for vulnerable children.

What makes ESSA better

Organizations with widely divergent views on education agree that the ESSA should replace NCLB.

Civil rights leaders who had opposed earlier versions of an NCLB revision as well as the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, charter advocates and the testing reform group Fairtest all see the ESSA as better policy than what now exists.

How is “Every Student Succeeds” better? It provides more flexibility on testing. It also ends “Adequate Yearly Progress” – a measure that required schools to show test score gains. Schools that failed to meet goals were penalized.

Other provisions in Every Student Succeeds are also genuine steps forward, such as preschool development grants for low-income children and an arts education fund.

In addition, the new law drops the term “core academic subjects” and uses instead a “well-rounded education,” meaning that subjects like social studies and arts are less likely to be what one study called “collateral damage of the No Child Left Behind Act.”

The ESSA also stops the practice of putting multiple student subgroups (students with disabilities and low-income students, for example) into “supersubgroups” – a practice that can mask inequities.

But these changes are more about what’s bad in our current policies than what’s good in the new bill.

Testing v anti-poverty

In 2013, for the first time, low-income children (defined as living in households where the income is no more than 185% of the poverty threshhold) became the majority in US public schools, prompting the Southern Education Foundation to warn that unless we provide more for these students, “the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.”

Poor children and their families and communities show tremendous resilience and learn in spite of tremendous obstacles. Yet, as researchers like Stanford’s Sean Reardon have shown, family income closely correlates to academic achievement.

How much will ESSA help vulnerable kids? USAG- Humphreys, CC BY

In North Carolina, for example, all schools that received an “F” rating have school populations of more than 50% low-income children.

What is the new law’s solution to this? Same as the old law.

Schools will need to monitor academic performance of vulnerable groups, which include students living in poverty. So states will still have to test 95% of children, and intervene in the lowest performing schools.

That means the ESSA will likely do little to disrupt the NCLB pattern of “punishing” vulnerable children and the “low performance” of the schools they attend. This will not fix achievement gaps.

In Newark, New Jersey, as in many cities, “accountability” has meant more testing and school closures, leading parent activist Sharon Smith to decry policies that “caused harm in our community…and long-term trauma for our children.”

Testing mandates in the ESSA continue the retreat from the anti-poverty focus of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In signing that act, President Lyndon Johnson identified poverty as the “greatest barrier” to educational opportunity, and under Title I provided $US1 billion for schools with large numbers of poor children.

Though Title I is central to the ESSA, LBJ’s understanding that educational achievement depends on civil and economic rights is largely absent. Thus the new law seems unlikely to hit pause on the practice of disproportionaly penalizing vulnerable students and their schools. For example, when Chicago closed 49 elementary schools, African-American students were the majority population in 90% of those schools. Nearly 60% had a high concentration of special needs students.

Often, charters, which receive increased support under the “Expanding Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools” section of ESSA, replace closed schools. Yet charters have a decidedly mixed record, particularly with English language learners and children with disabilities.

The ESSA’s support for charter schools reflects a philosophy that favors autonomy, whether through privately run public schools, or through less federal regulation. Yet historically, expanded federal control of education, from nineteenth century land grant colleges, to the GI bill, to the original ESEA, has meant, according to educational researcher Jack Jennings, “that public education could not avoid its responsibility to educate all children.”

The obligation to educate all children is weakened when we send the federal government to the sidelines. Given their history of opposing certain kinds of reforms, is it wise to trust states to develop their own separate and potentially unequal guidelines and practices?

Missing the early years

Almost every page of the Every Student Succeeds Act concerns K-12 schools. But investments in early childhood education are both critical to educational success and cost-effective in the long run. Access to quality preschool is particularly critical for poor children.

The new legislation proposes to allocate $250 million for preschool grants. But given what we know about the importance of the ages from birth to three years to learning, that’s far too little.

All this means the newest version of the ESEA is unlikely to lead us to a future where all children will be able to access high-quality educational opportunities.

As long as attention remains on testable accountability in K-12 schools rather than on poverty, inequality and early education, “every student succeeds,” like “no child left behind,” will continue to be an unfulfilled promise.

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