Doug Mesecar
Apr 18, 2018

There is always a great deal of attention paid to the latest iterations of federal education policy. Sometimes that level of focus is warranted due to major changes in the federal prescriptions to states and school districts around accountability, assessment, teacher evaluation, or funding. Often, the attention is blown out of proportion because it makes for good headlines. So which is it with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? A big deal or a big distraction?

There is simply no question ESSA is worth the time and attention it is getting – it is a big deal for educators and the outcomes they work so hard to achieve with their students. The pendulum of policy has swung dramatically away from the dictates of the No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA is a major shift of power from the federal government to states and districts, while encouraging a broader concept of educational success.  Will the removal of the unwanted or unsuccessful tactics mandated by the federal government mean better solutions will replace them?

ESSA provides a once-in-a-generation chance for states and districts to boldly rethink the means – and ends – of American education. If educators and leaders seize ESSA’s opportunities to systemically rethink their approach to teaching and learning, teachers and leaders can redesign their methods, policies, and approaches to enable innovation over tradition, acceleration over stagnation, comprehensiveness over narrowness.

Defining “Success”

It is difficult to identify wide-spread, sustained improvements over the past 25 years in student outcomes across the country. A common assessment of educational success is whether students are prepared for starting college or a career after high school. Studies have shown 25% of first-year college students need remedial coursework, costing families $1.5 billion every year. And it’s not just college — the number of open manufacturing positions hit a 15-year high a year ago because too many students are not prepared for work. And nearly 20% of 15-to-29-year-olds are not working, learning, or training.

National and international assessments of U.S. student achievement show stagnation, such as on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, frequently called the Nation’s Report Card) or the Programme for International Student Assessment.  

The biennial hand-wringing over NAEP officially resumed with the recent release of the new, 2017 NAEP results. Among the most notable findings are that: 1. overall student performance continues to be flat in 4th and 8th grade reading and math; 2. struggling students are falling further behind, while top performers are pulling ahead; 3. in certain grades and subjects, traditionally underperforming groups (e.g., students with disabilities and in poverty) saw performance declines, widening achievement gaps; but 4. the digital assessment administration to 80% of test takers did not appear to have a significant impact on the actual scores.

ESSA's Potential 

ESSA provides policymakers, administrators and educators with more flexibility to tailor educational policy and practice to their circumstances. But ESSA is more than just returning control to state and local policymakers. So ESSA matters, but for more than:

  • Policies – though individually the policies are less restrictive and more empowering, and focused whole-child success;
  • Funding – though there is now more, and more flexibility with the funds;
  • Programs – though there are good new ones like the Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program.
ESSA matters for the potential it can unleash and the trajectories in teaching and learning it can change. The law enables policy shifts and pedagogical enhancements that can enhance:
  • Continuous improvement in teaching and learning rather than point-in-time judgements;
  • A focus on the ends – life AFTER school – not just the means –  life IN school – which leads to a more holistic view of student success;
  • Active use of data to understand where learning is happening (or not), which leads to continuous improvement; and
  • Innovative teaching approaches like personalized learning.

New Learning Models

State and district policy and practice must evolve in the face of continued pressure to produce results and rapidly improving technological tools and deeper content. With the new federal education law, educators and leaders have greater freedom to actively support accelerated growth in new learning models, like personalized learning.

The provisions in ESSA address a stubbornly persistent design flaw in the educational system: despite a variety of skill sets, interests, and backgrounds, going to school means studying the same content as everyone else — at the same pace.

The distressing reality is that disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students are identified as in need of special education due to a lack of educational success. These students often slip through the cracks until their learning deficits become too large to ignore and their needs are only addressed because of federal disability law. Personalized learning can turn this sad pattern around by providing students immediate learning support when it is needed based on close attention to outcome data.

School accountability under ESSA can enable personalized teaching and learning models in which students can learn at their own rates in different subjects with standards-aligned content. Among a number of changes, ESSA requires the use of growth in student achievement over time to measure performance, rather than just grade-level proficiency, which is a key element of personalized learning.

Instead of waiting for students to fail before receiving more time and attention, personalized learning models provide a just-in-time, data-informed approach that can help teachers address deficiencies before pervasive failure sets in.

Charting a New Course

There is no excuse for doing things the way we have always done them, and ESSA is providing the opportunity to ensure the old ways go away. Ultimately, we must learn from prior experience to improve the effectiveness of the educational system for all students. Policy can amplify great teaching, but great policy cannot replace poor teaching.  Properly implemented and fully leveraged by states and districts, ESSA can help teachers become efficient and effective and student outcomes can be significantly improved.

Topics: Teaching & Learning Educator Effectiveness Policy & Accountability District/School Leadership In the News ESSA Educators Featured