Yesterday the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest example of pretending that reality will match a bill title’s rhetoric. We have turned the corner from the negative No Child Left Behind to the positive Every Student Succeeds, but what Congress just passed will definitely not ensure that every student succeeds.
The new law passed after years’ and years’ of trying (Reauthorizations were attempted without any consensus reached in 2007, 2010, and 2013.) leaves the machinery of test-and-punish pretty much in place. The bill keeps the testing, and it says that states must do something to “turnaround” the bottom-scoring schools. What to do is left up to the states. One positive is that there is no longer a federal mandate to rank and rate teachers using students’ test scores.
Last week after the House vote to affirm the Every Child Succeeds Act, Jeff Bryant at the Educational Opportunity Network wrote, Go Ahead, Pass Every Student Succeeds Act, But Don’t Celebrate It. That sums things up pretty well.
Here is a very quick, broad-stroke summary of what this over-a-thousand-page bill will do. In it Congress mandates that schools test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States are still required to disaggregate the data and rate and rank schools based on students’ test scores. States are required to consider other factors beyond test scores in their ratings, but test scores must remain the most important factor. States are required to identify the lowest-scoring 5 percent of schools or those that don’t graduate more than 2/3 of their students and to intervene in some way they choose. States must continue to adopt high standards, but the U.S. Secretary of Education cannot play a role in determining those standards. In fact the law bars the Secretary of Education not only from suggesting standards but also from prescribing assessments, accountability and improvement. And states must address in a very proactive way any schools or school districts that don’t improve after four years.
The No Child Left Behind punishments that have already been swept under the carpet by the waivers Arne Duncan’s Department has been providing since 2011—the provision that some Title I funds be diverted to helping students in “failing” schools transfer out—the provision that some Title I funds be used for Supplemental Education Services (tutoring by private providers)—and the Adequate Yearly Progress provision that schools must raise test scores higher every year until in 2014, when all students are proficient—all those things will now disappear entirely. Until now those widely discredited policies have been operating only in the handful of states without the waivers. In fact, with the new law, the waivers themselves will be moot on August 1, 2016.
Probably the most positive thing about the new law is that it decouples—in federal law—the evaluation and rating and ranking of teachers from the performance of their students as measured by standardized tests. Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made the states use, as a condition for applying for a No Child Left Behind waiver, students’ test scores as a significant part of teachers’ evaluations. States can continue to depend on standardized test scores as what many of us believe is a flawed measure of teacher quality, but the federal government isn’t any longer going to force them to do so.
Here is the comment of Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger: “The ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) doesn’t settle anything. It doesn’t solve anything. Every argument and battle… will still be fought—the difference is that now those arguments will be held in state capitols instead of Washington, D.C.”
Congress, through conference committee negotiations, did abandon one terrible provision that the House had threatened in the version it passed last July: Title I Portability. This is the idea that each poor child could carry a little Title I voucher to any school district to which the child moved. Many of us had opposed Title I Portability because it would likely have watered down what Congress intended back in 1965— the targeting of Title I to school districts serving the highest number or highest concentration of very poor children. Thankfully this is not in the bill that passed Congress yesterday.
The tragedy of the Every Student Succeeds Act is what Congress left out. Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was designed as Lyndon Johnson’s compensatory education program, intended to help equalize resources for school districts, because school districts that serve children living in poverty also tend to lack local property wealth that can be taxed. In the bill that passed yesterday, Congress failed to address opportunity by significantly expanding Title I. Congress ignored its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission that concluded:
“The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”
School funding formulas across the states persistently ignore shocking inequality in the capacities of local school districts to raise revenue. Wealthy suburbs provide the latest in offerings and equipment and staff-student ratios, while city school districts cannot afford enough college counselors to assist students who desperately need guidance about post-secondary options. It is a sad reflection on our democracy that, in this most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress neglected to address educational equity in the one federal law that was intended by its 1965 sponsors for that very purpose.