Can ESSA Prepare Students for the Future?

Students celebrate graduation

There is substantial momentum supporting the Every Student Succeeds Act and its emphasis on state decision-making power. As a whole, the education community is excited about the possibilities this federal change can bring, but how much does this legislation positively impact students? Primarily, how does ESSA help students on their path to college and career readiness?

What’s the deal with ESSA?

Although the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was replaced by ESSA, many pieces of ESSA have yet to be put into place. There’s a lot more focus areas associated with ESSA than just college and career readiness. Accountability still plays a major role in this legislation, with emphasis on intervention for low-performing schools, struggling student subgroups, and testing proficiency. States will be required to adopt challenging academic standards.

While this doesn’t necessarily rule out the use of Common Core State Standards, it also doesn’t require them. States will be given greater flexibility on the use of federal funds in order to support leadership development and teacher quality.

The Executive Summary related to ESSA from the White House places career readiness in the spotlight, listing this area among the top goals for this legislation. “Ensure states set high standards so that children graduate high school ready for college and career.” This may be a larger task for states than expressed in the legislation.

The 2015 College and Career Readiness report by ACT stated that 31 percent of the graduates who tested with ACT failed to achieve any of the college readiness benchmarks. While there are several positive outcomes from the report, there is a clear distinction that states need to refocus their systems around the goal of providing high school graduates prepared for either a post-secondary education or to enter the workforce.

A call to action

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it sounds like the expectation from ESSA is to make college and career readiness a top priority. The added flexibility that comes from the federal government is accompanied by the goal of more rigorous and higher-quality standards developed by each state. This type of wiggle room can allow state education leaders to strive for greater alignment of standards and accountability with an increased focus on making both areas more relevant to the long-term goals of students.

A team effort

School systems across the country are already at critical mass with implementing federal and state mandates. It’s not fair to assume that the changes expected from ESSA will just happen without support. For this type of work to produce a successful product, collaboration between higher education, K-12 education, and the business community must occur. Each of these entities can benefit from greater focus on college and career readiness, but it won’t happen if any of them choose to sit on the sidelines during this crucial time.

As ESSA continues to evolve through the work of stakeholders, educational leaders, and government officials, individual states must use this time to strategically plan how they can use this opportunity to move the academic needle in their state and move toward a progressive model of curriculum and accountability which provides deeper learning and substantial feedback.

ESSA may be the catalyst for change, but it is the action of those in positions of leadership who will determine the future of education for the next generation of students.

Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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