What Does ESSA Mean to You?

Jon Alfuth is the newest addition to the Tennessee Education Report team. In his inaugural post, he breaks down the newly-signed Every Student Succeeds Act.

This last week saw the passage of the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Every Student Succeeds Act. After months and months of negotiations, this legislation is suddenly a reality. I’m here to break to down and give you an idea of what it means for districts across Tennessee.

NCLB, Waivers and Race to the Top

First, you have to start with No Child Left Behind and education policy under the Obama administration. The legislation massively ramped up the Federal Government’s involvement in what was traditionally a state dominated education system. The 2002 law set ambitious long term goals that every student would be proficient by an agreed upon date, required states to establish systems to track student performance and set stiff penalties for schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress towards those goals.

It didn’t go as planned. Early in the Obama administration (and arguably before), it was clear that the 100 percent proficiency goals and timeframe was an admirable dream, but a dream none the less. The Obama administration chose to grant states waivers from many provisions of federal policy, but only if the states adjusted their education policy to fit the administrations education agenda. Specifically, states had to implement college and career ready expectations for students, target low performing schools and population groups and create teacher and principal evaluation systems with student growth as a component.

Then came the Race to the Top, a competition among states for funding to implement education reform policies in each state. Tennessee was one of the first states to receive funding and required states to build assessment systems for standards, adopt data systems, support teachers and school leaders and create interventions in low performing schools. Tennessee already had TVAAS in place, so we were a natural fit as two of the key requirements were already met. One of the biggest innovations that has come out of Race to the Top is the Achievement School District, which was spurred largely by federal money.


Now we get to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act tones down much of the direct or indirect influencing of local education policy that has been promoted by the Federal Government while keeping the “spirit” of NCLB in place.

The goal in the compromise bill that has now been signed into law is to keep in place the structure preferred by democrats that forces states to report on and take action to rectify education inequities while at the same time catering to republican desires for more state and local control.

Here are some of the highlights of how this bill differs from the NCLB and Obama era policy:

  • Testing– under NCLB, testing was once a year every year In grades 3-8 with one test in high school. ESSA keeps the frequency of testing in place, but allows states to be more flexible with what tests are given and when in the year they are given.
  • Standards– ESSA takes the same tack as NCLB, supporting higher standards, but includes an interesting provision that prohibits the Secretary of Education from “influencing, incentivizing or coercing” states to adopt common core.
  • Accountability–ESSA pulls back from the NCLB era significantly and allows states to essentially come up with their own accountability goals, as long as those plans are submitted to the Department of Education. This contrasts with NCLB, which prescribed interventions from the top down. ESSA also relaxes the influence that test scores are required to play in accountability systems.
  • School evaluation– under NCLB, evaluation focused mostly on test scores. ESSA allows states to expand the scope of their evaluation to include “other measures” such as graduation rate, student engagement and disciplinary data in evaluation.
  • Low performing schools –under NCLB states had to address low performing schools using mostly prescribed methods. ESSA specifies that states must address the bottom 5% of schools by assessment scores and high schools with low graduation rates or underperforming subgroups, but again leaves it up to the states to decide how.
  • Overtesting – the law contains a provision to encourage states to eliminate unnecessary state and local tests and provides them funding to do so. It also would provide support to districts to analyze the amount of time teachers test with the end goal of reducing that time.

Dramatic Change?

Looking over these provisions, the overall theme of ESSA in my eyes is state designed accountability monitored by the federal government. This differs markedly from the spirit of NCLB, which used heavy handed top down methods to impose change. Now states are much more on the hook to come up with their own strategies to improve schools.

That said, this isn’t that different than what has been done under the waivers granted by the Obama administration. Waivers required states to submit a plan, which was then reviewed by the federal government and approved or turned down. The same concept seems to be at play within ESSA, but with more freedom granted to the states to decide what and how to address the different requirements embedded within ESSA.

Short Term Impact

Here in Tennessee, we already do much of what the flexibility under ESSA would allow. We’ve already started breaking up our assessments over the course of the year with the upcoming implementation of TNReady, where students will take their yearly assessment in two different sessions in the spring. We’ve also started down the road of eliminating unnecessary assessments.

We also have two existing interventions for low performing schools (ASD and iZone), we report our test data and have established data systems in place.

We also effectively tackled the standards issue by writing our own standards by revising and adding to the common core.

In sum, I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic transformation of how we conduct education in Tennessee a la Race to the Top. I think the more likely outcome is that teachers and schools will start seeing small tweaks here and there to the education policy frameworks established over the past few years.

One area in which I think we could see some movement is in the area of reducing redundant testing. My hope is that the Tennessee DOE takes advantage of the funds available through ESSA to study the number of tests and the time that is spent preparing for them to take these assessments.

Longer Term Impact

My final take on all of this is that much of the result of ESSA locally will depend on the actions taken by constituents and their interactions with state elected officials. I’ve already explained why I don’t think much will happen, primarily because we’ve taken advantage of much of the flexibility already afforded us under NCLB waivers.

But that could change quickly depending on constituent mobilization. Local and state level elected officials are much more responsive to public opinion and Tennessee’s legislators seem especially so. For example, if we see tremendous upswing in the opt-out movement we might see a large rollback in the amount, frequency and design of our accountability measures.

For advocates of the current system, much of ESSA will come down to defending what has already been won in the past decade. The systems for a standards based accountability system are in place, and those that support this vision of education will need to likely fight tooth and nail to keep it intact.

In the end, movement will be up to advocates for the new states quo to push to keep what we already have and for opponents of the system to push for what they want to see change. That’s something that is very difficult to predict.

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