How the Nation’s Education Law (ESSA) is Evolving
Issue Insights

How the Nation’s Education Law (ESSA) is Evolving

As the school year winds down, the policies that directly impact public education have been continuing to ramp up. While devoted education policy devotees like us are well-versed in the changes being driven by the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the nation’s new K-12 education law, they are far from the minds of the majority of parents and community members, as well as a sizeable amount of hard-working educators.

For those focused in this space, there has been a sizeable amount of media coverage on the new law. National publications like Education Week and POLITICO have covered ESSA extensively, and state-based publications like the Lexington Herald Leader in Kentucky and Minnesota’s Daily Globe have taken a look at how the law might impact their states.

It is simply unrealistic to expect that a 1,000+ page piece of legislation will organically capture the imagination of parents and the public, let alone spur them to actively engage with it. Nevertheless, engagement is critical if state policies are to reflect the needs of their communities. ESSA provides states and local communities with much-needed flexibility, and creates room to have a renewed focus on social and emotional learning, music, and the arts. While flexibility is good, it is important that the law is implemented with guardrails that ensure that our education system serves the needs of all of our students.

That’s where our teachers, parents, and community members have a powerful role. Through public comment periods, forums, and workgroups, these stakeholders can provide meaningful feedback and insights into how state education leaders can shape policies to work in the best interest of kids. We know from research that most parents aspire for their kids to go to college-and this is a chance to weigh in to ensure they are prepared.

As communicators, we are challenged to rally and inspire our audience around complicated issues―first making the issue relevant to our target community, and then driving them to action. This is our task at hand with ESSA. In the weeks, months, and years ahead, it will be critical to break through to folks leading very busy lives, increase their awareness and understanding, and hopefully spur them to engage in the process of shaping how this law rolls out.

As part of the effort to increase understanding, Education Week held a helpful webinar on May 25 that walked through the major shifts under ESSA. Captured below are some of the highlights, as well as a high-level timeline of what’s coming next.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

What’s out?

  • Adequate Yearly Progress
  • High Quality Teacher definition
  • School Improvement Grants
  • Teacher evaluation systems based on student achievement

What’s still in there/new/different?

    • Accountability: Requires states to use non-academic measures of school quality (such as school climate or teacher retention), but academic indicators still have to count “much more” than other indicators. Pre-ESSA, most states haven’t had a big appetite for including different indicators of school quality. Many states will need to change their systems to include English language proficiency for English Language Learners as an indicator, and they must work to disaggregate their data by subgroups and stop using “super subgroups” that combine various traditionally underserved demographics.
    • School turnaround: Still requires states to identify struggling schools (in the bottom 5%), but districts are the ones to drive turnaround plans. States must intervene (e.g., by firing staff) if the turnaround strategies don’t work.
    • Testing: Still requires annual testing in math and English language arts for students in grades three through eight and once in high school, and it requires at least 95% of students to be tested. The law leaves opt-out policies up to the states.
    • Teacher evaluations: Grants states a good deal of flexibility in determining how they evaluate teachers, and some states have expressed interest in changing their systems or already made moves to do so (such as New York placing a moratorium on using test scores in evaluations). However, it would be surprising if states scrapped their current systems wholesale.
    • Standards: Prohibits the federal government from using “carrot and stick” incentives to encourage states to adopt certain standards, but it still requires states to use “challenging” standards. Some states, like Utah and North Dakota, are making moves to review their standards in light of ESSA.
    • Funding: Keeps major funding formulas in place, but there’s still debate over “supplement, not supplant” language, as the Department of Education wants to ensure that federal funds to Title I schools are used in addition to—and not instead of―state/local dollars.

ESSA Timeline

What’s the Timing?

  • Rules and regulations: The U.S. Department of Education released draft accountability regulations on May 26 and will release proposed regulations on consolidated state plans and data reporting under ESSA on May 31. The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulations through July 30. Final ESSA regulations will be published in October 2016.
  • Opportunity for public feedback: States have already begun soliciting public feedback on ESSA implementation. Check with your state department of education for a schedule of public forums.
  • State implementation plans: States must submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education in early 2017. State plans go into effect in the 2017-2018 school year.

Interested in learning more? Check out the Education Week website, which has a ton of great information about the law, including an explainer video.