The latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was recently signed into law by President Obama. The new law, christened the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replaces its predecessor, the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. "Good riddance" sums up the sentiments of many educators regarding the demise of NCLB, but the question now is what ESSA means for students, their teachers and principals, and for the funders who support many K-12 initiatives and reforms.
(See my earlier post on what ESSA means for funders and nonprofits in the early childhood ed space.)
While the new law is barely in the implementation stage, a look at its provisions reveals some important details for K-12 education and those funders who have made ed reform a key element of their grantmaking strategy.
Testing Here to Stay
Standardized testing in K-12 schools is not going away. ESSA largely preserves the requirements for standardized testing in grades three to eight and high school, much as NCLB did. However, in a step away from its predecessor, the new law offers states and school districts greater flexibility in the design of those assessment tools, as well as in accountability for results. This contrasts with the more punitive approach of NCLB, which triggered federally mandated improvement requirements for schools and districts that failed to meet academic performance standards.
In addition to continued testing requirements, states and districts must continue to disaggregate their assessment data by various student groups, such as low-income students, racial and ethnic groups, special education students and English language learners. This means the use of data to drive decisions will remain an important part of K-12 practices.
The prominent role for data in education decisions is good news for a wide variety of funders who have awarded millions in grants to boost the capacity of states and school districts to collect, manage, and understand their data. The Gates, Casey, Dell, and Ford foundations are among the leading funders of the Data Quality Campaign and similar organizations supporting better data use in education. But as we have seen, education data can be used (or misused) in a number of ways.
As a decision-making tool, data can act as a hammer or as a flashlight. Where NCLB advocated the hammer approach, piling costly sanctions and improvement measures on schools that fail to measure up based on standardized test results, the language of ESSA at least suggests a preference for the “flashlight” approach, in which data becomes a means for highlighting problem areas and populations, and is used for plans to address deficiencies. For low-performing schools, ESSA requires districts to work with teachers and school staff to develop evidence-based plans.
However, more punitive measures remain an option. If schools continue to founder after no more than four years under a district turnaround plan, states can step in with their own plans, including firing the principal or converting the campus into a charter school.
High Standards (But Not Necessarily Common Core)
Contrary to the concerns of Obama administration critics, who feared the president would seize an opportunity to mandate the Common Core State Standards nationwide, ESSA requires only that states adopt “challenging” academic standards. The Secretary of Education is strictly prohibited from requiring or even encouraging states to adopt a particular set of standards, including the Common Core.
The Gates Foundation has been the leading funder pouring millions into developing and supporting the Common Core, which was initially adopted by all but a handful of states and the District of Columbia. Since then, however, some states have developed a kind of buyer’s remorse and backed away from the Common Core in favor of new standards of their own. (As we've reported, a number of conservative funders have been working hard to torpedo the Common Core.) For the time being, however, Gates remains committed to the Common Core, and an array of foundations, including Hewlett, have invested in improving implementation. Still, the flexibility in adoption of standards may create new opportunities for funders interested in developing challenging academic requirements as an alternative to the Common Core.
Good News for Choice Advocates
Funders of charter schools and other school choice initiatives will find a lot to like about ESSA. In addition to accountability measures that give states the option of transforming chronically underperforming schools into charters, school districts can also experiment with public school choice programs that enable students to transfer out of low-performing campuses. However, the law emphasizes that such programs must give priority to the students who most need the options. There is every indication that charter schools will continue to grow in the era of ESSA, which is good news for top charter funders such as the Walton and Broad foundations.
New Flexibility in Teacher Training and Evaluation
Teacher evaluation systems and programs to improve the quality of the nation’s teaching force hold prominent positions on the agendas of many K-12 education funders. The Gates Foundation, for example, has indicated that teacher preparation will receive greater emphasis in its grantmaking activities. ESSA includes a variety of provisions related to teacher preparation, training and evaluation. The former Teacher Incentive Fund will become known as the Teacher and School Leader Innovation Program, and will provide grants to districts that want to experiment with pay-for-performance and other measures aimed at improving teacher quality. The new law also includes funding to train teachers on literacy and STEM.
Capacity Building is Key
Perhaps one of the most important areas for funders to take note of when supporting K-12 education in the wake of this new law is the need for increased capacity so that school districts can responsibly exercise the new flexibility granted to them under ESSA. Nellie Mae Education Foundation President Nick Donohue pointed this out in a recent statement regarding ESSA. He noted that the shift in decision making to the local level (with state guidance) will require capacity building for districts, which previously have had to direct their energies toward compliance with federal guidelines established by NCLB. Funders can provide invaluable assistance to school districts, especially those in poor and urban areas, to help them maximize this new flexibility in such a way that improves student results.