12/06/2015 06:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2016

Will Every Student Succeed? Not With This New Law


Last week the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to jettison penalties for schools, districted and states mandated by the Bush era No Child Left Behind law. NCLB was signed into law by George Bush in 2002 and was supposedly designed to expose and solve "achievement gaps" in American education. It did this by mandating the continuous testing of students and required that all gaps be eliminated by 2014. While the testing industry has overwhelmed American schools, achievement gaps have not disappeared. The Senate is expected to pass the new bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, this week, maybe as early as Tuesday.

In the last fifteen years a lot of children have been left behind. A recent study published by the National Center for Education Statistics based on 2011 middle school math tests found that Black student performance was significantly lower than the performance by White students and the gap increased for Black students who attended racially segregated schools with large numbers of children from poor families. The scoring gap between Hispanic and White non-Hispanic students was not as high, but it continued to be large. NCLB forced almost every state to apply for a series of waivers from requirements because they could not possibly ensure that no child was left behind.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that established his signature educational program, Race to the Top. Obama-ED promised states educational grants if they imposed Common Core-aligned skill-based tests on public schools and used student scores to evaluate students, teachers, schools, and school districts. To get the competitive federal grants states made impossible promises that stirred up deep resentment from teachers and led to open rebellion by parents opposed to the high-stakes testing regime. It also became an excuse not to address the fundamental problems causing poor academic performance by Black and Latino youth, racial and ethnic segregation, persistent poverty and unemployment in their communities, and inadequate school funding. Even the federal Department of Education had to concede that RTTP was not working. In 2015, student performance declined on math tests for the first time since 1990.

Finally, with bipartisan support in Congress, there is a new educational miracle drug, the Every Student Succeeds Act. There are, however, three very quick questions I need to ask. (1) In the highly charged partisan politics dividing the United States as it enters a Presidential election year, how can any bipartisan bill be more than a conglomeration of pay-offs that will have very little impact on education or the achievement gap? (2) Why are supporters of the bill pretending that every student is ever suddenly going to succeed and what are they going to succeed at? (3) Will there ever be national discussion of what is important for students to know and why or what is meant by college and career readiness?

Major provisions of the ESSA include repeal of annual federal yearly progress reports that will be replaced by individual state-designed accountability systems. ESSA transfers responsibility to states to identify and provide support for struggling schools and prohibits the federal government from interfering in state and local decisions. There will be continuing annual, statewide assessments in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and science tests three times between grades 3 and 12, but states will develop their own standards and have greater "flexibility to develop and implement innovative assessments." Basically, under ESSA states are free to develop pretend standards and assessments while the federal government kicks in dollars to support teacher development and improved education for at-risk students, but there will be minimal to no oversight how states spend the funds. I will be glad to see NCLB left behind and RTTT stopped, but I do not see how ESSA is a victory for education in the United States. Does anyone believe that low-funded poorly performing states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia will create meaningful accountability systems and tests that will expose the low quality public education they offer Black and Latino students?

Other problems emerge as well when you do a close read of the bill. Buried in the new law is a provision lobbied for by private and religious schools. State education officials will be required to set aside funds for "equitable services" for eligible children who attend private and religious schools. The bill also requires that state education departments create an ombudsman position to ensure private and religious schools get what they consider to be their fair share of federal dollars.

Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington at Seattle, believes that ESSA lowers the standard for teacher preparation. He uncovered provisions in the legislation for establishing "teacher preparation academies" designed to promote "entrepreneurial programs like those funded by venture philanthropists. These include fast-track teacher education programs such as Teach For America, Relay and TNTP, which place individuals in classrooms as teachers of record before they complete certification requirements."

In her blog, Mercedes Schneider points out that ESSA largely keeps the high-stakes testing regime in place and poses a new threat to parents and communities that want to opt-out of the testing. According to Schneider "ESSA pushes for that 95-percent-test-taker-completion as a condition of Title I funding and leaves states at the mercy of the US secretary of education to not cut Title I funding in the face of parents choosing to refuse the tests."

ESSA, as did NCLB and RTTT, avoids any discussion of meaningful content so as not "offend" rightwing ideologues and religious fundamentalist. The biggest criticism of American education may be the gaggle of Republican Presidential candidates who do not believe in science, reject global climate change, and argue positions on economic policy, immigration, and war without any apparent need for supporting evidence. But an even bigger criticism may be that people actually plan to vote for them.

Teacher unions endorsed ESSA praising new federal flexibility but mostly they welcome changes in how their members will be evaluated. I suspect they will abandon opposition to high-stakes testing once teachers will no longer be penalized. The National Council for the Social Studies is ecstatic that there may be more money to support social studies education and is rallying its membership to support authorization, but has not addressed other issues. The National Governors Association supports ESSA, but they also took credit for Common Core.

Civil Rights activists have been much more wary about ESSA and share many of my concerns. According to a coalition of civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the New York chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, federal oversight of education will be much too weak to ensure education for Black and Latino students in many of the "red states' and ESSA does not address disparities in school discipline procedures and suspension policies that target minority boys. Gary Orfield, an education and law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, who has documented increasing racial segregation in United States schools, charges that "Now we're going to get something that's much worse -- a lot of federal money going out for almost no leverage for any national purpose."

"Let's be clear," a catchphrase frequently used by President Obama, this is not a law that will improve education in the United States. It is a mishmash of compromises between political parties that agree on almost nothing. It rewrites bad laws that made things worse, but offers little that will make education better and hidden in the recesses of the 1061-page law are new toxic arrangements, some that may take years to completely emerge.

I am not a fan of Common Core and a big opponent of the high-stakes testing regime, but I suspect in the end ESSA will stand for Excusing States for Student Abandonment.