Much Ado About an Enigma – No One Really Knows What Impact the ESSA Will Have on Public Schools


President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) this week.

The new legislation reauthorizes federal law governing K-12 public education.

In 1965 we called it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Until today we called it No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And now after a much-hyped signing ceremony, the most definitive thing we can say about it is this: federal education policy has a new name.

Seriously. That’s about it.

Does it reduce the federal role in public schools? Maybe.

Does it destroy Common Core State Standards? Possibly.

Is it an improvement on previous policies? Potentially.

Will it enable an expansion of wretched charter schools and unqualified Teach for America recruits? Likely.

The problem is this – it’s an over 1,000 page document that’s been open to public review for only two weeks. Though it was publicly debated and passed in the House and Senate, it was finalized behind closed doors and altered according to secure hurried Congressional votes. As such, the final version is full of legal jargon, hidden compromise, new definitions and verbiage that is open to multiple meanings.

How one reader interprets the law may be exactly the opposite of how another construes it.

Take the much-touted contention that the ESSA reduces the federal role in public schools. Even under the most positive reading, there are limits to this freedom.

The document continues to mandate testing children each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It also mandates academic standards and accountability systems. However, what these look like is apparently open to the states.

For instance:

The Secretary [of Education] shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.

That seems pretty clear. The federal government will not be able to tell states what academic standards to adopt or how student test scores should be used in teacher evaluations.

But it also says that states will have to submit accountability plans to the Department of Education for approval. It says these accountability plans will have to weigh test scores more than any other factor. It says states will have to use “evidence-based interventions” in the schools where students get the lowest test scores.

That sounds an awful lot like the test-and-punish system we have now.

What if your state decides to take a different road and reject the high stakes bludgeon approach to accountability? In that case, some readers argue schools could lose Title I funds – money set aside to help educational institutions serving impoverished populations.

Will that actually happen? No one knows.

It may depend on who will be President in 2017 and whom that person picks as Secretary of Education. And even if the Feds try to take advantage of these potential loopholes, the matter could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What about Common Core?

Some readers interpret the new law as destroying forever the possibility of national academic standards. If states are allowed to pick their own standards, it is highly unlikely they’ll all pick the ones found in the deeply unpopular Common Core. However, the law does force each state to have academic standards of some kind, and it defines what those standards must look like. One interpretation of this is that they must look a lot like the Common Core.

They must be “state-developed college- and career-ready standards.” You read that right – “College and career ready.” That’s the Common Core catchphrase. If someone says they want to eat lunch at “the golden arches,” they haven’t said McDonalds, but you know they’re craving a Big Mac.

Will the Fed allow states to choose standards radically different than the Core? Again only time and – possibly – the courts can tell.

This same problem occurs throughout the document. As the public painstakingly combs through it, new legal wiggle room may be found. And I am not so naive as to suppose we’ve found all of the loopholes yet. Some of these may be the result of poorly chosen wording. Others may be purposefully hidden time bombs waiting for opportunists to exploit.

This uncertainty about exactly what the ESSA will eventually mean for our public schools may help explain the range of reactions to the formative law – from ecstasy to despair to shrugs and snores.

I’m not sure what to think of the thing, myself. I started the whole process disgusted but came around to accepting it if the final result was any kind of improvement over previous legislation. And now that it’s the law of the land, I look at this Frankenstein’s monster of a bill – stitched together pieces of mystery meat – and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I still hope it will live up to the limited promise it holds to bring us some relief from NCLB. But I admit this thing could go sour. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

Which brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with this law that no one seems to be talking about.

Education needs reformed. We need to repeal the bogus policies that have been championed by the 1% and their lapdog lawmakers. We need to get rid of test-based accountability. We need to trash high stakes testing, Common Core, value added measures, charter schools and a host of other pernicious policies. We need to initiate a real anti-poverty program dedicated to attacking the actual problem with our schools – inequality of resources.

But more than any of that, we need to reform our government.

We need to find a better way to make our laws. The process that shat out this ESSA must go.

Think about it. No Child Left Behind was an abject failure by any metric you want to use. It didn’t close achievement gaps – it increased them. And the major policy of this law – annual standardized testing – remains intact in the reauthorization!

There has been massive public outcry against annual testing. Parents are leading an exponentially growing civil disobedience movement shielding their children from even taking these assessments. Everyone seems to agree that we test kids too much – even President “I’ll-veto-any-bill-that-deletes-testing” Obama.

Yet our legislators did next to nothing to fix this problem.
Instead preference was given to lobbyists and corporatists interested in making a buck off funding set aside to educate children. The focus was on smaller government – not better government. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but they aren’t exactly one-and-the-same, either.

This can’t continue if we are to keep pretending we have a representative Democracy. The voice of lobbyists must not be louder than voters. Money must be barred from the legislative process. Demagoguery must not overshadow the public good. We need transparency and accountability for those making our laws.

Until that happens, we will never have a sound and just education policy, because we don’t have a sound and just government.

Unfortunately, that is the biggest lesson of the ESSA.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, Badass Teachers Association Blog and quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.


37 thoughts on “Much Ado About an Enigma – No One Really Knows What Impact the ESSA Will Have on Public Schools

  1. The very name “Every Student Succeeds Act” sets off warning bells for me, because it is a fact that everyone can NOT be a winner. Everyone cannot succeed in life. Everyone can’t be Bill Gates. Everyone can’t win a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer Prize or a whatever prize. Every horse that runs in a race can’t win. In a card game of five card stud with five players, everyone can’t have the same royal flush dealt out in one hand.

    In life, there is no guarantee that we will all live healthy lives and live to be 100+.

    In life, there are losers who are hooked on horrible addictive illegal drugs and that addiction makes sure they do not succeed in life.

    Are we going to call our home grown nut cases who are responsible for mass killing in the US successful?

    In life, there is no guarantee that we aren’t going to end up with cancer, diabetes, a stroke or some other disease that cripple or kills us.

    When we say “I do” in our first wedding, there is no guarantee that you will be married to the same person fifty years later.

    There is no guarantee that the job you have today will still be there tomorrow.

    That title tells me this is just more of the same BS and that legislation is another tool designed to dismantle community based, non-profit, transparent, democratic public education and replace it with a often worse and often fraudulent, for profit, opaque, autocratic corporate education system.

    The only people the ESSA will guarantee succeeds will be the few greedy power hungry psychos at the top of the food chain who just won the corporate public education demolition derby, and they don’t even have to be Americans. For instance, they can be Turkish who hires all Turkish citizens with Green Cards to teach OUR children.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a few thoughts after reading this. College and career ready. Students should be able to step into one of these rolls with a bit of training and no need for remediation if they have a HS diploma. The issue really is that the job qualifications to work under the golden arches is quite a bit different than what’s needed to go to an ivy league college. Given the diversity of direction students will take after graduation, one size cannot fit all. We don’t want everyone to be ready for a career in fast food nor is it fair for students who aspire to the culinary arts to be taught at the same level as someone who aspires to be a rocket scientist. Maybe what’s needed is more realistic matching of students to post-secondary situations. So people with culinary arts science skills aren’t directed to go into rocket scientist programs. Or students with average math skills are told that the remedial math classes they will need to take will make college a 5-year program and to plan their finances accordingly. Maybe a solution would be part time school for a year to re-mediate math to an appropriate level along with a job that makes this an affordable option.

    Value added measures. I actually really like these. Look at a baseline and expect a student to progress one year [or more] from that baseline in a year. Students identified as gifted should be able to do this. I feel that kindergartners who are reading at a second grade level should be at a 3rd grade level after a year – not still at the same level because all they were exposed to at school was kindergarten material. And third graders who are reading at a 1st grade level, well I’d expect them to make progress at a faster rate – to make 1.3 or 1.5 years worth of progress from baseline so they can be on grade level in 2 or 3 years. [If those gifted kids make more than a years progress, I’m OK with that – just so long at they make at least a years progress.] Unfortunately, the standardized state tests don’t test this. They just look at if a student knows what was taught in the curriculum for the grade they are in. If we know a student is 2 years behind in reading, why put them through testing we know isn’t at their level? Is it just to prove the testing that shows a 2-year delay is right? Or are we purposely wanting to damage the self-esteem of students like this?

    Every system has room for improvement.


    • Judi, there’s something to be said for making room for vocational education in our education policy. However, value-added measures are junk science. No statistical organization in the world would approve of using an assessment built to determine X used to determine Y. It is junk science. It is baloney. Moreover, children are not machines. They learn at organic rates. Just because some math happy number pusher decides X is what a child should learn in a single year, doesn’t mean that is a good metric to judge learning. Kids learn in bursts. We need to respect the psychology of individuals. No child is failing who is making some progress.


  3. One more comment: “The Secretary [of Education] shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.” Last time I checked, legislatures were the ones who wrote & passed ESSA. The Secretary might not have the authority to do what’s mentioned but it doesn’t mean that others in federal government cannot. [PA is working on doing this. The state DOE said that students will need to pass 3 tests to get a HS diploma but the legislatures are working on bills that would override this.]


  4. This bill is a serious threat to public schools and quality education. Its mandate of millions of dollars every year to advance the charter school movement is a privatizers dream. Its huge investment in “personalized education” will put many students in low income neighborhoods at computer terminals; education on the cheap. Its mandates test and punish. It has the secretary of education put together committees to decide the remedies instead of deciding like Duncan has done. It supports “alternative certification” for teaching credentials meaning 5 weeks of TFA training is equivalent to the NCLB highly qualified teacher standard.

    I was dismayed to have the NEA, AFT and PTA all campaign for this bill. It was also disheartening that the BATs and NPE did not clearly and loudly speak out against this bill. Now we have a disaster on our hands and we need to unite and go to battle against this worse than NCLB legislation. It is a threat to the survival of public schooling in America.


  5. […] There’s plenty of noise going on in education circles around the new Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed into law by President Obama last week.  People are touting it as the “end of an era” replacing No Child Left Behind.  Others, like myself, are skeptical that this new law will significantly change anything for students or teachers, saying “It depends,” or “No one knows for sure.” […]


  6. […] Both Sanders and Clinton have spotty records here. Sanders voted against the terrible No Child Left Behind legislation that spawned the beast, while Clinton helped nurture it. However, just this year Sanders joined Congressional Democrats trying to continue the era of test and punish through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – some of which failed and some of which became part of the final law. […]


  7. […] Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and one of the architects of the ESSA, says states can just follow what’s written in the law. But this is a 1,061 page document full of legalese, meandering bipartisan compromises and – frankly – contradictory language. Even the most simple legislation needs interpretation, and in this case it needs extensive interpretation. […]


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