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May 9th, 2022

Neha Saju

Understanding ESSA:

Reforming the Fundamental American Ideal of Education


With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal

that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, 

deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will.

—President Barack Obama, December 10, 2015 


I. Background Information, Educational Equity and ESSA 

Education, often considered the bedrock of America’s future, has been a source of inequity as well as a remedy of equality since the establishment of the United States. Within the discussion of educational equity, a student’s socioeconomic and racial identities are often a central topic since these factors have the greatest impact on the type of education a student receives. 

In an attempt to map out what caused children to struggle academically, researchers in the 1960s focused on the home environments of disadvantaged families, especially families of color. This view was sometimes summarized as a theory of “cultural deprivation.” Its proponents argued that impoverished families lacked the skills required to instill a love of learning in their children, fueling a gap between the actual needs of poorer families and what researchers believed that they needed. Instead of supporting policy that would ameliorate the living conditions of these families and adjusting the system to better support the needs of these individuals, this view served to fuel long-standing stereotypes that blamed poor families for their struggles. 

Moreover, children are only able to receive the education afforded to them by the socioeconomic situations of their parents. In 1965, at the beginning of Head Start, a program which provides free resources and services to children from low-income families, former President Lyndon B. Johnson explained that, “Poverty perpetuates itself. Five- and six-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators.” Since it brought education into the forefront of the national assault on poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a hallmark of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the expansive social welfare legislation introduced in the 1960s as a part of the Johnson administration’s larger legislative reform program known as the Great Society,. ESEA can best be described as having “accomplished two primary goals: distributing money to students in poverty through the vehicle of Title 1 and directing grants to state education agencies to build capacity, resulting in a steady growth in federal involvement in education.” ESEA established a norm of increased federal involvement allowing mayors, governors, state legislators, U.S. Secretaries of Education, and presidents to later play a more active role in shaping educational policy. 

As illustrated by history, alleviating social issues and derailing the cycle of poverty can be best achieved by a combination of public investment as well as a renewed dedication to racial integration. Segregation in the United States reached its peak in 1968 and declined through about 1980 before plateauing. In other words, “it has been four decades since progress toward more integrated schools flat-lined.” Integration has the potential to help equalize the playing field. Even though the practice has been abandoned for years, integration gave Black children in newly desegregated schools a boost and these students benefited the longer they learned in these integrated school systems. Those opposed to renewing the commitment to desegregating America’s public schools operate under the assumption that racially divided schools are a relic of the past, long dissipated after calls for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. But, in reality, educational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of the unequal educational opportunities afforded to them, like skilled teachers and quality curriculum, than they are a function of race. Despite clear differences in funding, curriculum, class sizes, and teacher quality between disadvantaged students and privileged ones, the prevailing view remains that if students do not achieve, it is their own fault.

Source: Unsplash

Although education policy seems to sit on the policy agenda indefinitely, there are certain historical events that give it a seat in the front row. Johnson’s Great Society and school desegregation efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, which culminated in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, were historical moments that triggered a national conversation around education equity. While other monumental events set the tone historically, these two moments are notable instances of altering the educational fabric of the United States by highlighting the importance of equity. 

II. Comparing the No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) had many lives before its eventual signage into law by former President Barack Obama in 2015. Originally passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the law was intended to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to “quality and equality” in education. After reformulating ESEA as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, former President George W. Bush added accountability procedures to the act to help states level the playing field for students living and learning in poverty. NCLB represented the federal government’s most dramatic attempt at influencing the elementary and secondary public school policymaking terrain. NCLB endeavored to attach strings to federal funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by requiring states to annually test high school students and third to eighth grade students.   Then, these scores would be tracked by “race and ethnicity, low-income status, disability status, and status as English-language learners.” If students in any one of these subgroups failed to meet specific scores on state administered tests, the entire school would be at risk of shutting down. 

This law set a goal for all students in the country to achieve specific reading and math proficiency levels by 2014, but this goal was so impractical that the Obama administration had to grant most states a waiver from meeting NCLB’s targets. The Every Student Succeeds Act attempted to respond to popular backlash surrounding NCLB’s dependence on standardized testing and punitive sanctions. While ESSA preserved federally mandated standardized testing, the punitive consequences for states and districts that underperformed were removed. ESSA also prevents the “government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core.” The requirement that all children must become proficient in reading and math by a certain date was removed from the rewrite. Moreover, ESSA required states to specify their procedures for holding schools and districts accountable for meeting state educational standards. This more state-centered approach did not exist under NCLB, which ensured that one accountability structure was applied to all of the states.

Furthermore, under NCLB, school performance was determined by a measure of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). According to a Congressional Research Service Report on the act, AYP is determined by three main components: student academic achievement on required reading and mathematics assessments administered by the state, student participation rates in assessments, and performance concerning another academic indicator like graduation rates for high schoolers. Schools must fulfill all three components for all students, including those in specific subgroups, to meet AYP standards. NCLB differentiated students into subgroups based on variables like their race, disability, and socioeconomic status and if one group underperformed, this meant that the entire school was considered underperforming even if the school may have been high performing previously. As Donald C. Baumer and Carl E. Van Horn explained, “NCLB allowed states to design the standards students and schools would be judged against, and this scenario created a natural incentive for some schools to water down their standards to meet AYP benchmarks.” NCLB penalized states with rigorous testing standards and rewarded those with more relaxed ones. For example, in 2005 Mississippi had the highest percentage of proficient fourth graders in the nation at 89 percent, but the state ranked at the bottom when students took the more demanding National Assessment of Educational Progress test with only 18 percent of fourth graders being proficient in reading. ESSA eliminated the AYP measure and replaced it with more specific indicators used to measure school performance. In public high schools, for example, academic achievement is measured by reading and math proficiency as well as student growth on the assessments for public high schools. Under ESSA, states must still identify achievement gaps by subgroups, as mentioned previously, but they are no longer required to follow prescribed remedial measures.

ESSA is considered by many to be a new era of educational policy in the United States. In the process of dramatically reducing the federal role in shaping education policy and returning power to the states to design education systems, ESSA “explicitly reverses the decades-long federal effort to more tightly couple the U.S. educational system.” However, civil rights groups are worried that restricting federal authority to intervene in states and districts means forfeiting what has been a necessary tool in decades past to rectify racial discrimination in the nation’s divided school districts. Leslie Proll, the director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, states that the original purpose of NCLB was to protect the nation’s most vulnerable students, and while “some states will do the right thing, and that [is] great, others may not, and therein lies the problem.” Her group and other civil rights organizations recommend utilizing federal authority to set education parameters for states. How states handle the newfound authority vested in them by this act will determine whether or not ESSA becomes an enduring shift in education governance and education federalism or if it simply remains a reversal of a decades-long trend of increasing federal control over education systems.

Source: Unsplash

Crafting legislation capable of winning broad political support can lack necessary specifications and undermine the act’s effectiveness when implemented. In the case of ESSA, the law strikes a better balance than NCLB when it comes to the role of the federal government in administering education achievement standards. If the issues of NCLB had been left to fester, they could have undermined efforts to hold schools and educators accountable for their performance nationwide. An essential aspect of ESSA is that it applies the most important lesson learned from NCLB: “the federal government has a constructive role in ensuring transparency about student achievement and shining a bright light on lingering inequalities, but it is poorly positioned to dictate the details of states’ efforts to improve their schools.”

While ESSA ameliorated the role that the federal government is meant to fill, it  fundamentally maintains a test-driven, top-down, remediate and penalize law. Instead of federal mandates, states are required to implement many of the same features—the end result, that the same tests in the same grades are still being administered, remains. There are other areas where ESSA falls short. Shifting implementation control to the states may strain capacity since some states want additional federal guidance and state assessments are currently in flux so ESSA’s language may soon be out of date.

III. Implications of the Every Student Succeeds Act

There was a wide range of goals for implementing ESSA in state education systems. Some states decided on fixed goals that aim for all students, including specific sub-groups like low-income students to reach the same target. For example, Kansas aims to have 75 percent of all students and students in each subgroup scoring proficient on state tests by 2029-30. States pursuing this route include New York, Mississippi, Rhode island, Hawaii, Arkansas, Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming, and West Virginia. Other states pursued relative goals, meaning students who are behind do not have to meet the same end goal as students who start further ahead. For example, Pennsylvania aims to reduce by half the percent of students and students within each subgroup scoring below proficient on tests by 2029-30. States in this category are California, Kentucky, Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. Along with differing implementation goals, states also had differing implementation timelines. Iowa, for example, expects growth of one-half to one percentage points annually for schools and subgroups in a five year period while other states have timelines spanning more than a decade likeGeorgia, for instance, which is aiming for yearly three percent improvements in proficiency rates over 15 years. 

While ESSA’s goals were not adjusted, because they already allowed states so much more flexibility, they were measured using the metric of “evidence-based” school improvement. This method differs from the NCLB requirement that improvement policy and practice should be grounded in “scientifically-based research.” Evidence-based and scientifically-based seem like interchangeable terms, but they refer to vastly different practices. Essentially, the evidence-based approach encourages state and district leaders to examine multiple tiers of evidence as well as analyze the strength of the evidence in decision making. Although fulfilling ESSA requirements varies based on the specific education plan of a state, this process successfully replaced NCLB’s one-size-fits-all approach. While the success of the law depends on which political aisle one stands on, ESSA has succeeded in providing states with more realistic academic achievement goals to attain as well as severing the tight grip of the Department of Education on state education plans. 

The reduced power of the federal government in this policy realignment, however, must be considered through the lens of civil rights groups and activists. The elimination of overbearing national achievement standards is viewed by many as one of the main successes of ESSA, but these organizations and individuals are rightly concerned with meeting the needs of underserved student groups. There are aspects from NCLB that have not been modified under ESSA that need to be addressed to ensure education equity. For example, several policies for students with disabilities remain in ESSA that have not been fairly altered from NCLB. States still are required to separate and report the performance of students with disabilities on state tests, and ESSA places a one percent cap on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments intended for students with severe cognitive disabilities. The restriction in the number of students allowed to take alternate assessment means only 10 percent of students with disabilities will be accommodated. In order to improve ESSA’s performance, the law must be amended to not be a hindrance to students from underserved communities.

Source: Unsplash

The loss of federal power is a severe blow for some advocates. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government does not have the ability to induce prompt improvements in student achievement and to demand equal resources for disadvantaged students. ESSA operates under the presumption that the states will take initiative to improve educational opportunities for underserved students with little encouragement from the federal government. There are some that believe that ESSA essentially commits to equality nominally without having the operating procedure to substantiate this claim. Giving states wide latitude on student performance, accountability, and school reform simply opens Pandora’s box to 50 disparate state systems—none of which ensure equality. By reversing the federal government’s role in education, “ESSA moves education in a direction that was unthinkable just a few short years ago: no definite equity provisions, no demands for specific student achievement, and no enforcement mechanism to prompt states to consistently pursue equity or achievement.”

There is no consensus as to whether or not the Every Student Succeeds Act is a symbol of progress. ESSA represents a renewed commitment, or at least intention, to better the life outcomes of underserved and disadvantaged students. Previous laws were designed to try to ensure no children were left behind by pushing them to perform at the level of their peers, but now there is an opportunity to discard this mentality in favor of a system that allows for additional flexibility and more compassion for students. In the context of a world scarred by COVID-19, this educational legislation is now tasked with standing the test of time. Former President George W. Bush declared a national crisis in education and then persuaded Congress to enact major education policy reform, resulting in No Child Left Behind. It would be understandable if current President Biden decided to follow a similar route and prioritize education policy during a time when the nation’s schools are being tested unlike ever before. The Every Student Succeeds Act pushes the needle towards achieving a more equitable future for the United States. Although this political direction may need to be reserved in the face of national emergency, its success hinges on bettering the future of every student across the country.



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