No Child Left Behind, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, had many nicknames among educators, including: "No Teacher Left Standing," "No Lawyer Left Unemployed," "No Child’s Behind Left." All were expressions of frustration with the law’s arbitrary, unrealistic expectations and its disregard for the expertise of professional educators.
How will the reauthorization of that law, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), be different? The U.S. Department of Education has one year to issue the final regulations, but the work is well underway at the federal and state level (ASCD, n.d.).
Unlike its predecessor, ESSA requires districts to consult with stakeholders, including teachers. So as the law’s policy is translated into practice, this is an excellent time for every teacher leader to take action—by gaining basic knowledge about ESSA and the new opportunities it presents and by talking with colleagues and state-level policymakers about the law’s implementation.
Let’s start with the good news about the things that are now out of ESSA. The Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement is gone as of August 1, 2016. Also gone are the interventions that hung over schools like a guillotine if they didn’t meet AYP. The NCLB waivers will expire on August 1, but if a state passed policies to obtain the waivers, those policies stay in effect until the state adjusts them. There’s already been a flurry of state legislation to change such policies—for example, legislation eliminating the Common Core State Standards, retooling accountability systems, and changing exam requirements.
The Highly Qualified Teacher requirements (which stipulated that you must hold at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution, be fully certificated or licensed by the state, and demonstrate competence in each core academic subject area in which you teach) are no more. However, teachers and paraprofessionals in Title I schools (those with high rates of poverty) must meet licensure and certification requirements set by the state. States must also ensure equitable distribution of effective teachers among Title I and non-Title I schools. Many teachers will breathe a sigh of relief that ESSA does not require specific educator evaluations. The new law does state that if Title II funds are used for developing or improving a rigorous, transparent, and fair evaluation and support system, that system should be based "in part" on evidence of student achievement, which may include student growth, and that the evaluation system must include multiple measures of educator performance and provide clear, timely, and useful feedback. Again, however, it is important to realize that state laws and policies on evaluation are still in place until changed.
"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although standards are still in ESSA (states are required to have "challenging" state standards), noticeably absent are requirements for "college and career ready" standards—which, for many, was code speak for Common Core State Standards.
States will still have "report cards," but these report cards must include new information, such as per-pupil expenditures. Three new subgroups must be reported (but not for accountability): students who are homeless, those in foster care, and those from military families.
The law still requires state assessments in math, language arts, and science, but the accountability measures and interventions for struggling schools will now be developed at the state level; districts will be responsible for implementing improvement strategies. This is a key access point for teachers to get involved in decisions about how schools should be held accountable. Talk with your state board of education, your commissioner, and your union about which interventions help and which ones just make things worse. Send e-mails and let them know you want to be part of the discussion.
New Opportunities for Teacher-Led Professional Growth
Some of the biggest changes come in the Title II section—"Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, or Other School Leaders." Ninetyfive percent of the $2.5 billion in Title II money is allocated to school districts. ESSA eliminates NCLB’s definition of "core academic subjects" as language arts and mathematics, thus expanding the allowable use of these Title II funds for ongoing, job-embedded professional development for teachers of every subject as well as all other school staff, from principals to librarians to paraprofessionals. The law also calls on states to help local school districts offer opportunities for effective teachers to lead professional development for their peers.
These changes, together with the work of the National Education Association’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (2011) in developing new ideas for teacher compensation, open the door to uncoupling salaries from the traditional "step and lane" salary schedule that is heavily dependent on obtaining college credit. School districts could partner with new providers (including their own effective teachers) and use Title II funds to implement more individualized professional development, offering micro-credentials for salary credit and movement on the salary scale.
As practitioners, we should be the quality-control guardians of our profession. National Board Certification, a peer-reviewed system of demonstrating the attainment of professional standards, is one way of achieving this. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (n.d.) states that "now is the time to initiate conversations with your principal, state and school district agencies, associations, and organizations on ways to get involved in the ESSA planning and implementation process." The organization offers a set of resources to engage Boardcertified teachers in developing district and state plans (see "Online Resources for Understanding ESSA").
Online Resources for Understanding ESSA
Click here to read the complete text of the Every Student Succeeds Act. In addition, the following organizations offer information about ESSA:
One of the problems with teaching is that it’s a relatively flat profession. Instead of encouraging our best teachers to stay in the classroom, we honor and financially reward those who leave the classroom for administrative and leadership positions. ESSA acknowledges the need to diversify professional advancement by encouraging states to provide support for
career opportunities and advancement initiatives that promote professional growth and emphasize multiple career paths, such as instructional coaching and mentoring (including hybrid roles that allow instructional coaching and mentoring while remaining in the classroom), school leadership, and involvement with school improvement and support.
" As practitioners, we should be the quality-control guardians of our profession."
This presents an opportunity for school systems to channel federal funds into teacher leadership and to think about staffing schools differently.
Seizing the Opportunity for Influence
Congress will be keeping an eye on implementation and talking to those on the ground. Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, primary architects of ESSA, have stated that they will be calling for at least three congressional oversight hearings on the implementation of the law. An array of education stakeholders, including teachers, will be called on to participate in these hearings (Klein, 2015).
The U.S. Department of Education has a deeper understanding of and appreciation for teacher leadership and teacher voice than it has in the recent past. Education Secretary John King has stated that lifting up the teaching profession and supporting teachers is one of his three key priorities. There has been a significant increase in the involvement of teacher voices and a renewed commitment to bridging the gap between practitioners and policymakers within the Department. Teach to Lead, an initiative jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, ASCD, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is designed to expand opportunities for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom. (For more information on Teach to Lead, see "How They Lead" on page 42 of this issue.)
Just as an expanded educator voice inside the U.S. Department of Education will make federal policies smarter and implementation smoother, increased teacher voice in statehouses and district offices will also provide better implementation. As educators, we need to seize these opportunities. Reach out to your representatives, offer your assistance, and ask them how you can be involved. Learn more about teachers who are leading change (Hess, 2015).
For more than a decade, many educators experienced NCLB as an attack on our schools and our profession. ESSA offers us a truce and an opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Let the implementation of ESSA represent the time when we got it right and valued the practitioner voice in the development and implementation of education policy.
A Call to Action
On May 26, the U.S. Department of Education released for public comment a set ofproposed regulations to give states the clarity they need as they rethink their accountability and school improvement systems. You canread a summary of the regulations or the full Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Public input began May 31 and will extend 60 days.
Maddie Fennell, 2007 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, is the secretary for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is a teacher in the Omaha Public Schools, and this year is serving as a Teacher Leader in Residence at the U.S. Department of Education. Follow her on Twitter @maddief.
ASCD. (n.d.). ESSA implementation timeline [online].
Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (2011). Transforming teaching: Connecting professional responsibility with student learning. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
Hess, F. M. (2015). The cage-busting teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Klein, A. (2015, December 17). Alexander: Federal role on K–12 will be "very different" under ESSA.Education Week.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (n.d.). ESSA opportunities for accomplished teachers [online]. Arlington, VA: Author.