Go Ahead, Pass Every Student Succeeds Act, But Don’t Celebrate It

Jeff Bryant

On Wednesday afternoon, the House overwhelmingly passed the proposed Every Student Succeeds Act by 359 to 64. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure this month, and the White House has signaled President Obama’s willingness to sign it.

As is true with any time there is an all-too-rare example of bipartisan legislation, expect, in the coming weeks, a lot of ballyhoo about this being an example of where “Washington comes together” when it comes to matters that are “all about kids.”

For sure, there are things to like and dislike about the bill, but while lawmakers and policy wonks are back-slapping and glad-handing each other, this is also an opportune time to reflect on where we are in the evolution of education policy compared to where we should be.

‘A Modest Step Forward’

When you have a piece of legislation that is disliked by the super-conservative Heritage Action Fund, on the one hand, and left-leaning civil rights organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, on the other, the knee-jerk tendency is to conclude, “Hooray, we’ve ‘met in the middle’ and satisfied all but the outliers.”

However, education policy has been deeply harmed by this sort of shallow bipartisanship, as lawmakers and policy types have tended to regard the easy way forward as an assurance everyone involved in crafting a bill has performed the necessary due diligence. After all, bipartisan blinders gave us the flawed No Child Left Behind enacted under the administration of George W. Bush in the first place (not to mention the Iraq War).

So, what about this bill?

One of the better, measured statements about ESSA comes from Monty Neil, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an assessment watchdog that generally opposes using standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, and schools.

Neil acknowledges the first reason to support the bill is akin to what doctors do when a patient approaches them with a splitting headache: Stop the pain. ESSA certainly does that because not passing it will mean NCLB and its associated waivers would “continue to wreak havoc for at least another several years,” to use Neil’s words.

According to Neil, ESSA balances its flaws – maintaining the federal enforcement on states to use a battery of standardized tests to measure outcomes – with its strengths: recognizing the rights of parents to opt their children out of tests in states that allow it.

There are questions about how future federal administrations will interpret some of the bill’s requirements, but it’s hard to imagine any bill could be crafted without having items that are bound to be subject to interpretation. Other requirements in the bill that will continue to enforce the testocracy in education policies in many states are balanced with freedoms for states to develop alternative assessment systems.

And a significant improvement in ESSA Neil fails to mention is the elimination of federal government requirements to use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, a favored requirement of NCLB waivers pushed by the Obama administration.

In sum, Neil judges the new legislation to be “a modest step forward.”

Let’s Pause to Reflect

What everyone seems to agree is that ESSA will, as the Washington Post summarized, “significantly shift authority over the nation’s 100,000 public schools from the federal government to states and local school districts.”

Regardless of how you feel about the bill, you have to pause to reflect on why we face a policy moment where avoiding the influence of the federal government on pubic education is a priority.

First, it’s a sign of dysfunction, rather than a triumph of bipartisanship, to see officials in Washington, DC celebrating legislation that significantly curtails the influence of officials in Washington, DC.

Second, the federal government’s influence on education has historically been positive. Requiring states to provide for public education began with pressure from the federal government with the enactment of the Land Ordinance of 1785, before the Constitution was established. When millions of soldiers returned from World War II, it was the federal government that enacted the GI Bill that made it possible for those men and women to attend college and create a workforce that powered the most successful economy the world has ever seen. True, access to free and high-quality education has always been, and continues to be, anything but universal, with all sorts of populations – including non-white, low-income families, immigrant children with limited English capability, and students with physical, mental, and emotional exceptions – routinely discriminated against. However, that ugly reality about our system has been disrupted most frequently and successfully when the federal government has taken action to demand states and school districts provide greater inclusion.

So sure, getting rid of the impossible demands of NCLB and unworkable waivers that legislation spawned is more so than not a really good thing. But it’s important to acknowledge why this moment has come about.

Should ESSA eventually become law, as most predict it will, the main reasons will be not because it was conceived from scratch by the best possible thinking but mostly because it is a response to seven years of failed leadership by the Obama administration and its outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Even the most generous analyses of Duncan’s signature program, Race to the Top, conclude, so far, the effort has been more of a triumph of process rather than product. Sure, RTTT made states do lots of stuff, but, as reported by Education Week, even USDoE’s latest assessment of the program failed to show any clearly positive outcomes while acknowledging obvious “unintended consequences.”

School Improvement Grants, another of this administration’s programs, have equally unimpressive results so far. For the $7 billion spent on this effort, according to Politico, “The program has failed to produce the dramatic results the administration had hoped to achieve. About two thirds of SIG schools nationwide made modest or no gains — not much different from similarly bad schools that got no money at all. About a third of the schools actually got worse.”

Secretary Duncan routinely touts high school graduation rates, which indeed are at a historic high of 81 percent, as evidence of his success. But a thorough analysis reported by NPR concluded, “this number should be taken with a big grain of salt.”

And what happens after those students graduate? A new report examined by Education Week finds the college graduation rate the Obama administration has set is likely nowhere near toward becoming a reality. “The new data are yet another indicator of dim prospects for reaching Obama’s goal on his desired timetable,” the article notes.

An analysis of other data about college attendance, in the Washington Post, finds “a downward trend” in college enrollments during the Obama years, particularly among low-income high school graduates. The downward turn in low-income students, defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes, was “the largest sustained drop in four decades.”

So by lots of measures, objective and subjective, this administration’s education legacy is uncertain, at best, and downright awful at worst. Yet, what’s astonishing to see is Duncan himself now attempting to take credit for ESSA, a bill that is mostly an effort to shuck his influence.

According to the Los Angeles Times, upon hearing news of the House vote to pass ESSA, Duncan issued a statement of support, saying “Nearly a year ago, I gave a speech setting the frame for what I believe is essential in the nation’s preeminent education law … The bill that the House passed today reflects more of that vision than nearly any observer expected.”

Nice try.

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