Friday, December 4, 2015

ESSA Will Not Solve Anything

It's not that I don't appreciate the good parts or hate the bad parts. I'm not delighted to see social impact bonds tossed into the mix, nor am I pleased to see the doors opened here and there for performance based education. I take a bit of pleasure in seeing the ways in which the bill makes extra effort to spank the secretary of education (who has been weirdly trying to save face by repeatedly saying, "Oh yeah, this is what we wanted all along"), and I'm quite happy with the various piecesparts that defang the Big Standardized Test. It is a mixed bag, a shift of inches in mostly the right direction kind of. I think Jeff Bryant said it best with, "Go Ahead, Pass Every Student Succeeds Act, But Don't Celebrate It."

Because here's the problem. The ESSA won't actually solve a thing.

Yes, state leaders may very well say, "Thank God! Let's scrap the Common Core and replace them with real standards that we develop ourselves, and let's work up our own Big Standardized Test and let's design a way to evaluate teachers and public schools that uses authentic markers of excellence and not a bunch of BS Test baloney and let's even allow parents to opt out of testing and if the feds don't like it, they can try to sort it out in a courtroom. Screw 'em."


Or state leaders may say, "You know, all this stuff that we had to do under the Obama-Duncan-Bush-Page administrations is just fine with us, and it took a lot of time and money to get it all up and running, and some nice lobbyists tell us that it's all working great, so we're actually not going to change a single solitary thing."

Some state leaders might say, "We have a vision for truly excellent public schools in our state. Now that tests can be decoupled from the high stakes, we will embrace systems for evaluating our students, teachers and schools that support and reveal their many forms of excellence, building up a state system of education of which we are justly and deeply proud."

But state leaders might also say, "We actually share the vision of Arne Duncan and of Bill Gates and of our very most excellent good charter-operating friends over with the giant piles of money. We are pretty sure that our public schools suck with the suckage of a thousand black holes, and we look forward to breaking them down and dismantling them and handing the pieces over to our chartery friends."

The ESSA doesn't settle anything. It doesn't solve anything. Every argument and battle that supporters of public schools (and the teachers and students who work and learn in public schools) have been fighting will still be fought-- the difference is that now those arguments will be held in state capitols instead of Washington DC.

Depending on your state, that may be good news. Or it may be that the best we can say is that your state government isn't any worse, and they live closer to you.

There are definite advantages. State government officials are easier to find, to get to, to contact, to talk to. When a single state decides to implement terrible policy, they won't be implementing it for the entire country. And there are now plenty of groups that have become very accomplished and effective at making themselves heard in their home state (looking at you, New York opt outers).

Both those who love it and those who hate it, I think, missing the most important feature. ESSA replaces a great deal of the old "you must do" this language with "you may do this" language and even "you could get money for this but you have several choices here" language.

ESSA makes it possible to take many important steps forward. It also makes it possible for states to step backward. The steps that are taken will be decided state by state, and the same players who have worked hard to break down public education are still right there, still well-funded, still fully committed to the goals they have pursued for over a decade. It is absolutely critical that advocates for public education keep the pressure up on state governments. Congress has taken an unprecedented step in returning some power and control to the states; now we have to make sure that power is well used and that all students, schools and teachers receive the support and the tools needed to do the job we signed up to do.

The struggle is not over. It has just shifted venue. Get ready for the next rounds of debate-- all fifty of them. The one big change is the, unlike its predecessors, ESSA mandates relatively few things. But it opens the doors of opportunity wide to many many things, both good and bad. It's up to all of us to be vigilant about what walks through those doors.


  1. Defangs The Big Standardized Test and then implants fangs into The Big State Standardized Test (with common-core-like standards), ripe for exploitation by edu-tech corporations. Cut off the head of Medusa and created 50 monster-heads that will mutate into who knows what. Please God, let me be wrong.

  2. "ESSA makes it possible to take many important steps forward. It also makes it possible for states to step backward." Well said. Thanks!

  3. I see no improvement at all from ESSA. It does mandate testing of every student grades 3 to 8 and 11. It does pony up big support for accelerating charter school development. It does support "individualized learning" and "blended learning" schemes (computer terminals and software instead of teachers) with federal dollars. It opens up education monies to investment bankers. It also undermines teacher education with its support of "alternative accreditation". I see all these things as being as bad or worse than NCLB. I just do not see any up side.

  4. For guidance on how assessment reform activists can transform the opportunities created by ESSA into lasting policy victories, see: