Under ESSA, States, Districts To Share More Power

State and local government officials have long complained about the rigid and controlling federal involvement in public education under the No Child Left Behind Act. However, their wishes seem to have been realized with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reduces the federal government’s role in K-12 education for the first time in over 25 years. There are now concerns about how states and districts will use the newfound flexibility granted to them by ESSA, and how this will impact struggling schools and marginalized groups of students that were intended to benefit from the NCLB law. It is also uncertain how much power the U.S. Department of Education will have once ESSA is fully implemented.

Under the ESSA, the U.S. Department of Education will be streamlined and nearly 50 programs, including counseling services, will be consolidated into a single block grant. The authority of the Secretary of Education will also be restricted in areas such as standards, assessments, school interventions, teacher evaluations, and others. Senator Lamar Alexander, a key supporter of ESSA, believes that the federal role will be significantly different in the future, leading to innovative approaches and benefits for students. The law is designed to govern the federal role in K-12 education for a substantial period of time.

ESSA received bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Obama recognized the good intentions of the NCLB law but acknowledged that it often imposed rigid reforms that did not always produce desired results. ESSA aims to create partnerships between states, allowing them flexibility in developing improvement plans, while maintaining federal oversight to ensure soundness. Obama believes that ESSA will uphold the civil rights legacy of the underlying Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which marked its 50th anniversary the previous year.

The federal role in K-12 education has been expanding since the late 1980s through successive editions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The latest version maintains the requirement for annual standardized testing in reading and math from grades 3-8 and once in high school. However, states are now encouraged to revamp their accountability systems and reduce the reliance on these tests in measuring school progress.

Under ESSA, states and districts will still be responsible for transforming their lowest-performing schools, but they will have the freedom to choose interventions as long as they are supported by evidence. They must also identify schools where historically marginalized student groups, such as English language learners, racial minorities, and students with special needs, are not performing as well as their peers. For the first time, states are required to consider factors such as access to advanced coursework or a positive school climate when evaluating school performance. They can also choose to eliminate teacher evaluations based on standardized tests, which were previously mandated for states seeking waivers from NCLB. Additionally, states can move away from the Common Core State Standards, as the federal government is prohibited from imposing any specific standards. States are committed to maintaining equity for all students.

Various education organizations are already preparing to support states and districts in implementing the new K-12 education landscape, although they may also be motivated to protect their own interests. The future of education under ESSA is uncertain, but there is a shared commitment to ensuring quality and equity for all students.

ESSA brings significant changes to how states are held accountable for student achievement. One major change is the elimination of "supersubgroups," which allowed states to combine different groups of students for accountability purposes. While states appreciated the flexibility of supersubgroups, civil rights advocates argued that they masked achievement gaps. Additionally, states will now be required to measure English-language proficiency, something that few currently do. They will also need to consider factors that impact students’ opportunity to learn, and analyze these factors by different student groups, similar to how they analyze test scores. This requirement may influence the factors that states ultimately choose to include in their systems.

Daria Hall from the Education Trust, an organization that advocates for poor and minority students, believes that the requirement for breakdowns by student groups may affect the selection of factors. For example, the legislation suggests teacher engagement as a possible factor, but the challenge lies in determining how to disaggregate teacher engagement by different groups of students. Donna Harris-Aiken from the National Education Association emphasizes the importance of considering various indicators, such as bullying and school climate, in data collection.

Although many details are still unclear, it is uncertain whether the language defining the education secretary’s authority will make it more difficult politically or legally for the department to regulate the law. Michael Kirst, a former member of President Johnson’s administration and the president of the California state board of education, hopes for flexibility from the federal department in order to preserve state autonomy.

While California did not participate in the NCLB waiver program under the Obama administration, Kirst is pleased to be moving away from the NCLB law and gaining access to federal funds that were previously reserved for mandatory interventions. However, implementing ESSA may prove challenging. Kirst is already pondering how to meet the new requirement of turning around the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. With approximately 500 low-performing schools in California, this poses a significant task for the state education agency.

Overall, Kirst believes that although embracing ESSA will be burdensome for state officials, it is a step in the right direction and aligns with the current educational climate.


  • cameronmarshall

    I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

cameronmarshall Written by:

I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

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