Congress Finally Did Something Right!

Congress Finally Did Something Right!

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,16 December 2015

On December 10th President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In spite of the fact that it’s about eight years late (NCLB expired in 2007) ESSA is being considered a rare legislative success story. It was drafted and passed with overwhelming support from both parties, something so unheard of these days that the President remarked that it was “a Christmas miracle, a bipartisan bill signing.” That’s a nice sentiment but the passage of ESSA was not due to divine intervention, rather it was the result of the fact that NCLB is widely recognized to be awful. (So now we know what it takes to get Congress to work together and pass a decent law: a really bad law. So let’s pass more terrible laws. Oh wait, no.)

One of the biggest problems of NCLB was that it was based on the idea that politicians in Washington knew how to make schools better. ESSA comes from the somewhat more logical standpoint that educators, communities, school boards, and states are better equipped to determine what their schools need to improve. ESSA will require some national standardized testing but for most schools it will be a lot less than they were doing under NCLB, and it still has some national requirements that schools must meet. But it allows state governments, rather than the Federal government, to work with school boards and educators to decide how to improve low performing schools. This makes sense and any step away from NCLB is probably a step in the right direction for U.S. education. Ultimately though, the success or failure of the new law may hinge on whether it can succeed in one of the areas where NCLB was a huge failure: creating national education equality.

One of the most troubling trends in U.S. education is the disparity between the states themselves. This is, in many ways, even more concerning than the more frequently mentioned disparity between the U.S. and other developed countries. A kid from West Virginia may never have to compete with someone from Switzerland for a spot at a university, a job, or a business loan. But they probably will at some point have to compete with someone from another state, and when they do, they will likely be at a severe disadvantage, because right now almost every state has better education system than West Virginia.

When we look at the NAEP data from all those standardized tests that everyone had to take under NCLB, it’s clear that some states are outperforming others consistently. Just as an example, in 2015, Massachusetts grade 8 students scored 297 on the national math test; by comparison, West Virginia grade 8 students scored 271. In Grade 4 reading, Massachusetts students scored 235. West Virginia students got 216. Across every subject, for every age group, Massachusetts scores at or near the top and West Virginia scores at or near the bottom. Those may not seem like big gaps but it doesn’t end there. U.S. census data shows that nationally, 29.3% of the population has a bachelor’s degree; in Massachusetts it’s 40%, while in West Virginia it’s 18.7%. That’s a huge discrepancy — Massachusetts has more than double the percentage of college grads that West Virginia has.

Without getting into the value of standardized testing and/or college attendance, what this data shows is that it isn’t just individual children who have not been getting the education they deserve. Entire states have been left behind by our system. This type of education inequality is incredibly complicated and influenced by a range of factors. It is both a cause and an effect of all the other inequalities we’re still grappling with in our country, so fixing it needs to be a priority not just for educators, politicians, and parents, but for all of us.

If a nationwide program like NCLB wasn’t able to level the playing field in education, then ESSA, which gives even more power to the states, may actually make things worse. A lot of states already sabotage their kids’ education by doing things like buying textbooks from Texas, being Texas, teaching creationism in schools, making false assumptions about charter schools, having bad policies about teachers, and more. If the ESSA empowers states that are already failing to fail even harder, then nationally it’s not going to matter much if the states that are already succeeding succeed a little more.

Fortunately, the ESSA includes a provision that may help make sure that doesn’t happen. Specifically, it says, “School districts will be responsible for designing evidence-based interventions for low performing schools.” It also provides grants to design those programs. The key phrase here is “evidence-based.” Rather than a one size fits all national policy, or just kind of guessing about what will improve our schools, states will have to start looking at the data, seeing what works in similar schools and districts and figuring out how to replicate that in struggling districts. This is kind of a novel approach to U.S. education reform and it’s unclear how, and how well, school boards around the country are going to shift gears into complex data analysis and program design. But the ESSA does seem to be committed to the idea of evidence-based education reform. It also allocates federal funds for early childhood education, which studies have shown has an array of benefits for kids. If states can follow the intent of the law, start getting the right information, and use it to design programs that will actually work in their schools, then ESSA could be a huge success.

At the risk of offending the people who give education bills such ridiculously aspirational names, there is never going to be an Act that grants Every Student Success. But if done right this could be the Act that moves the U.S. towards a situation where kids from all states have good educational opportunities. Republicans and Democrats doing their jobs and working together to create and pass this law makes it seem like anything is possible. But keep in mind that in a lot of the states that are most in need of change, the term “evidence-based” is going to be interpreted by people who may have learned about creationism in their science class. So maybe don’t start believing in legislative miracles just yet.

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