A Quick-Start Guide to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

A Quick-Start Guide to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

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Feeling like you should read ESSA for yourself over the holidays? Salutations, fellow nerd! Here are some tips to get you started:

On December 10, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), superseding NCLB as the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By last week, I had seen so many conflicting accounts of what’s actually in there, I decided I had better read the whole thing myself. This is one of those career déjà vu moments only available to folks with a few gray hairs; it seems like just yesterday when we sat down to do the same with NCLB in early 2002. The good news is that, at 391 pages, ESSA is far shorter than the 690-page NCLB Act of 2001, but I actually found it harder to read, and not only because my vision is worse. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to share a few pointers that helped me get started.

On the form of ESSA

First, the document. I downloaded the official PDF of the enrolled bill; this is the document passed by both houses and signed by the president. If you are like me and your knowledge of legislative process largely derives from Schoolhouse Rock, your first hurdle is this: although ESSA is law, it is not exactly what you think of as the law. In form, ESSA is not a clean-sheet redraft of ESEA, but rather a set of edits to the existing law. So reading ESSA is akin to reading the markup in a MS Word document with “track changes” turned on. It includes things like,

…in paragraph (5), by striking “agency” and inserting “agency, or, in a case described in subsection (b)(6)(C), the State educational agency involved,…”

The original text is not included in the bill, so for context you have to go find the relevant sentence in the ESEA. So have your 1965 copy of ESEA handy, right? Well no, that doesn’t work, because the NCLB Act of 2001 was also a set of edits to the 1965 ESEA. So ESSA is a set of edits to the version of ESEA that has already been edited by reauthorizations up to and including NCLB.

In the complete U.S. Code, which is like what you get when you finally turn off “track changes” and make your final copy, ESEA is Chapter 70 of Title 20. I find the handiest place to access U.S. Code is Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute—here is a link directly to Title 20, Chapter 70.

Because the NCLB Act of 2001 was a more complete rewrite, it is fairly comprehensible to read as a standalone document. But to read the 2015 ESSA, you have to continually reference either the actual U.S. Code or NCLB itself.

The reader must also keep in mind three different outlines: There’s the organization of the new ESSA, the organization of the revised-by-NCLB ESEA that ESSA is updating, and finally the organization of the U.S. Code where it all comes together. For example, Title I, Part A, Section 1005 of ESSA specifies the edits to the “State Plans” section of ESEA, which is actually Title I, Part A, Sub-Part 1, Section 1111 of that document. When slotted into place in the full U.S. Code, Title I of ESEA becomes Subchapter I (of Chapter 70, Title 20), and the “State Plans” section is 6311. (In ESSA, you will see this cited as “U.S.C. 6311.”)

The version of U.S. Code posted on Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute website as of today does not yet reflect the December 10, 2015, ESSA update, so if you have it (or a copy of NCLB) in parallel with ESSA, you are ready to read.

On the scope of ESSA

So much for the document itself. Now, a very brief bit of context-setting:
From the 1940s until 1965, federal funding for education focused on supporting local education agencies whose resources were strained by federal impact—that is, school districts having substantial numbers of children living on federal property or whose parents were federal employees. In contrast, the 1965 ESEA’s purpose was “to strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools,” a considerable expansion of scope.

The most recent reauthorization, the NCLB Act of 2001, in many ways formalized what had become de facto policy after years of interpreting and implementing ESEA, but it also pushed a new and somewhat polarizing agenda of accountability and choice. Similarly, the 2015 ESSA in some ways formalizes running changes already made in practice of implementing NCLB. But it also redresses issues contributing to the unpopularity of NCLB. We will dive into specific changes later, but for starters, simply comparing the language of the Titles is illuminating:


NCLB Act of 2001

ESSA  of 2015

To close the achievement gap with
accountability, flexibility, and choice,
so that no child is left behind
To reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to ensure that every child achieves
Title I: Improving the academic achievement
of the disadvantaged
Title I: Improving basic programs operated by
state and local educational agencies
Title II: Preparing, training and recruiting high quality teachers and principals Title II: Preparing, training and recruiting
high quality teachers, principals, or other school leaders
Title III: Language instruction for
limited English proficient and immigrant students
Title III: Language instruction for English learners and immigrant students
Title IV: 21st Century Schools Title IV: 21st Century Schools
Title V: Promoting informed parental choice
and innovative programs
Title V: State innovation and local flexibility
Title VI: Flexibility and accountability
Title VII: Indian, Native Hawaiian, and
Alaska Native education
Title VI: Indian, Native Hawaiian,
and Alaska Native education
Title VIII: Impact Aid Program Title VII: Impact Aid
Title IX: General Provisions Title VIII: General Provisions
Title X: Repeals, redesignations,
and amendments to other statutes
Title IX: Education for the homeless
and other laws

The language, especially in the purpose statement and Titles I and V, signals a shift in emphasis—from the federal government’s role in enforcing transparent accountability, individual student achievement, and parental choice, to the federal government’s role in supporting state and local agencies to run their programs. This is not all window-dressing; there are some notable changes that grant states more flexibility in their deployment of certain categories of funds. But the overall scope of the legislation, both in purpose and in the various revenue streams, remains quite similar.

The meat of the law really concerns those funding streams, but as the most attention-getting part in the NCLB era was the accountability system, it’s worth a quick note here. The annual designation of schools as making “adequate yearly progress” toward the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 is of course gone. On the other hand, the requirement that states implement school accountability systems that include annual standardized testing and disaggregated reporting remain intact. States are indeed encouraged to use more than just standardized tests, but they aren’t getting reset to 1965-style accountability. The end of AYP notwithstanding, 2017 is still more like 2007 than 1967.

Waivers put in place because NCLB was past its expiration date are of course ending, now that we have current legislation. We can expect a time of adjustment as the federal, state, and local education agencies begin implementing the new policy. Meanwhile, we will follow this introduction with a series taking a deeper look at the changes Title by Title.

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