How ESSA Will Affect Educators: What’s Known and Not Known

In December 2015, President Barack Obama ended the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era when he signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. ESSA, a recertification of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, shifts a lot of power to the states. Whereas NCLB clearly outlined performance standards and required interventions, ESSA returns education decision-making authority to the states.

Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director, policy & advocacy of the AASA: The School Superintendents Association.

“Under ESSA, we no longer have the federal government mandating intervention models. We no longer have the federal government setting arbitrary one-size-fits-all performance targets. We no longer have federal overreach into creating a high-stakes testing climate. And with those elements pared back, state and local education agencies are positioned to demonstrate what they can do in the accountability sphere on their own,” says Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director, policy & advocacy of the AASA: The School Superintendents Association.

Of course, because the law punts so much power back to the states — and because the law still has to go through the regulatory process — it’s difficult to fully predict the law’s impact. The 2016-2017 school year is expected to be a time of transition as states and schools gradually learn and adopt ESSA-approved processes.

Here are three shifts we expect to see sooner rather than later:

1. Decreased emphasis on standardized testing

One key component of ESSA has educators and parents cheering: increased flexibility in demonstrating student success.

“One thing we’re really excited about is the new flexibility that’s being incorporated into accountability systems,” says Bob Farrace, director of public affairs for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “It’s no longer just test-based accountability; it’s going to look at and include other factors that demonstrate a school’s success.”

The Annual Yearly Progress mandate — which threatened consequences on schools that failed to meet test-based measures of accountability — is gone. ESSA still requires annual testing of students in grades 3-8, and most of that will probably be standardized testing. However, ESSA also includes funds school districts can use to perform districtwide assessment audits.

“Schools and districts will be able to look at every test they’re administering and ask, why are we giving this? To what end are we giving it? What does it assess? What does it tell us? Is it instructionally useful?” Ellerson says. It is expected that these assessment audits will ultimately decrease the number of assessments students take, and once again reframe assessments as tools to inform teaching and learning.

ESSA also opens the door to innovative assessment approaches. It allows up to seven states to apply to pilot locally developed assessments, and it is expected that many of these assessments will include performance-based tasks, portfolio review and other demonstrations of student knowledge. Ultimately, these pilot programs may become templates for new state assessments.

2. Improved teacher evaluations

Under ESSA, “the Secretary of Education cannot dictate teacher evaluations or dictate the definition or terminology around teacher effectiveness,” says Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association.

So while many districts linked teacher evaluations to student test scores (as required by NCLB waivers), it’s expected that districts will loosen the link between student achievement and teacher evaluations. Certainly, teacher performance affects student achievement, but experts predict much a more comprehensive and multidimensional approach to teacher evaluations.

Kusler expects to see collaborative teacher evaluations that focus on multiple measures and take into account local challenges. She further hopes that teacher evaluations will be viewed as tools for teacher improvement. “We believe the flexibility here will actually lend itself to much better practice at the local level,” Kusler says.

3. Emphasis on principal development

The new law allows the set-aside of up to 3 percent of Title II funds for principal development. Farrace applauds this decision, noting that it’s based on an increased acknowledgement of the important role principals play in school and student success.

The Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropy that seeks to improve learning for disadvantaged children, “has done a great deal of really incredible research on this topic over the course of a decade,” Farrace says. “They’ve concluded that yes, quality of instruction is important for student achievement — but right behind that, especially for schoolwide achievement, is principal leadership. They were not able to find a single case of school turnaround that didn’t include a strong, effective, knowledgeable leader.”

Note that the law allows the expenditure of up to 3 percent of the Title II funds on principal development activities; it does not require it. “The next step for us is to push for language that encourages states to have that 3 percent set aside,” Farrace says. “We’ll also begin advocacy efforts via our state affiliates, to make sure that states are in fact taking advantage of the flexibility they have to dedicate 3 percent to principal development.”

Farrace, Kusler and Ellerson encourage educators to make their voices heard as states flesh out accountability rules and regulations and develop new, ESSA-based educational policies.

“The work is far from done,” Farrace says. “There is plenty of opportunity for individuals and organizations to offer a great deal of influence.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.