It has been nearly two months since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law. The bill, passed by the Senate on December 9th and signed by President Obama December 10th, gives state and local governments more power over educational policies, including standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation systems. Replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), ESSA takes away unattainable federal mandates that were previously in place and places the responsibility of determining measures for school success on states.
Accountability plans are now determined by the state not the federal government, but there are still broad definitions of what these plans and goals must include. Under NCLB, there were strict guidelines on how to fix a “failing” school. ESSA is clear on what constitutes a “failing” school but gives more freedom in how a state chooses to intervene. Regarding testing and Common Core (two much talked about topics), the new bill still requires students to take statewide tests, but the state may choose to administer the tests using a different structure and look as they determine the best indicator of student achievement. Common Core was introduced well after NCLB was passed, but was often adopted by states in exchange for a waiver to NCLB mandates. States may now choose to adopt the Common Core, but this choice must be made without federal incentive or influence.
The truth, though, is that we have little idea what impact this bill will have— mainly because the impact has the potential to be drastically different from state to state. The law is a “step in the right direction” according to Obama, but he also pointed out that “laws are only as good as the implementation”. The goals of ESSA may be noble, but nobility alone will do nothing for the students, teachers, and administrators on a day-to-day basis.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “Whereas NCLB prescribed a top-down…approach to struggling schools, this law offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions”. The problem is that ESSA is still a “top-down approach”— it is just a lower top. As a teacher, I have seen a lot of education reform, and I am doubtful that this newest one will make much of an impact on my classroom. The highest need students, those in the most struggling populations, experience inequalities that reach beyond schools alone, but certainly still impact academic success. The people making decisions are still above me, and are still not the ones that spend every day in the classroom with students, or meeting with parents.
True, there is no longer a federal mandate to tie teacher evaluations to student performance on statewide tests, but the state may decide to use student performance on these tests as a measure of teacher evaluation. True, states may do away with the Common Core Standards (another example of noble goals, but poor implementation), but they also may choose not to. True, state education leaders can now allocate professional development funds more freely, but that also took away the requirement that any priority is given to math or science educators. So we simply do not know how much ESSA will really change the landscape of teaching.
We do know that whatever change ESSA will enact will take quite a while. The implications of the passing of this bill may not be seen for years. So, as a teacher who will walk into a classroom tomorrow, my plans have not changed. For a teacher of today, of right now, the bill offers little more than a glimpse of hope. The hope that states will be forced to open a dialogue about modifying education— the standards, the assessment, and the evaluation.
To help students construct mathematical arguments, they are told to “convince yourself, convince a friend, convince a skeptic”. Until we truly move away from a “top-down approach”, and until we see fair, thoughtful, and teacher-led implementation, I remain a skeptic.
Elizabeth Masalsky is a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Battery Park City School in Manhattan. She has a post-baccalaureate in mathematics from Brandeis University and her master’s in secondary math education from Bard College. Elizabeth is a Math for America Master Teacher and continues her professional development through workshops with Math for America, Metamorphosis and Math in the City.