Executive Brief: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Redefines Federal and State Responsibilities

In a notable bipartisan effort, Congress passed a reauthorization of the 50-year old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was signed into law by the president in December 2015. The previous version of ESEA was enacted in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That version of the law significantly increased the role of the federal government to identify and to help failing schools. This new law reverses that policy and allows flexibility for states to determine the best local solutions to address struggling schools. However, they need to demonstrate that they are making reasonable progress in doing so.

What You Need to Know

According to U.S. News, ESSA “radically reduces the U.S. Department of Educations’ authority over state curriculum frameworks, standards and testing decisions; gives states the power to use ‘evidence-based’ models when investing in the lowest-performing 5% of schools; and curtails the secretary of education’s authority over state and local policy making.”

However, ESSA retains the federal requirement for reading and math testing in third through eighth grade and once in high school. Aside from this annual test, it’s up to states and districts to determine how many additional tests their students take.

There will no longer be federal student achievement goals such as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or mandated interventions for struggling students and schools.

However, states are now required to create their own accountability systems including measures of disaggregated student progress, monitoring, and intervention.

States will now need to include at least one non-traditional measure in determining school success. The states can choose one or more possible indicators such as student engagement, access to advanced courses, or school safety.

Two important reversals in ESSA are the removal of the “highly qualified” teacher language and the requirement that states tie their teacher evaluations to student performance. Under the new law, states are not required to implement teacher and leader evaluations but if they do, they may use federal professional development funds for them.

Higher learning standards are still required but may be customized by state. States will need to demonstrate that their learning standards align with the entrance requirements of state colleges and universities as well as the state’s career and technical education standards.

The federal funding process will undergo a significant change. EdWeek reports that ESSA consolidates 50 programs into block grants for the states. And new funding will be available for a preschool initiative that will be jointly administered by the Department of Health and Human Services to help provide access for more children to high quality preschool. The new act provides $250 million to help states coordinate their early childhood efforts.

What this means is that onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind are finally in the past. Those federal mandates have been replaced with flexibility for states to find innovative solutions to their struggling schools. Politicians on both sides of the aisle worked to retire NCLB’s top-down strategies and to replace them with state-designed programs that better reflect regional differences.