After several years of false starts and other delays, legislation to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is set to make its way to President Obama’s desk as soon as this week after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 2 by a bipartisan vote of 359 to 64. The U.S. Senate could pass the bill as soon as December 8. ESSA makes several major changes to federal education policy and shifts a significant amount of responsibility for students’ learning outcomes to states while increasing accountability and support for high schools.
“Today, we helped turn the page on a flawed law and a failed approach to K–12 education,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN). “But more importantly, we adopted a new approach that will help every child in every school receive a quality education. Parents, teachers, and state and local school leaders support this bill because they know it will restore local control and help get Washington out of our classrooms.”
While Republicans celebrated the transfer of authority from the federal government to states, Democrats focused on changes to the bill made in the conference committee that restored protections for low-performing schools and students.
“Today’s bipartisan vote to reauthorize the ESEA affirms the principles of Brown v. Board of Education, which held that ‘it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,’ and ‘that such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,’” said U.S. Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “Fifty years ago, Congress originally passed ESEA to help make that right a reality, and the Every Student Succeeds Act honors the civil rights legacy of that law.”
ESSA maintains NCLB’s testing requirements so states will still have to test students in reading and math in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school as well as testing in science once in elementary, middle, and high school, but it jettisons adequate yearly progress (AYP), which required schools to meet annual benchmarks for achievement in math and reading. States will still have to set goals, but they will have much more flexibility in determining those goals. Schools must still take action when students demonstrate low performance, but actions will be determined locally, not federally—a dramatic change from NCLB. And while accountability for high schools under NCLB was based on high school graduation rates and test scores, ESSA requires the use of additional factors such as school climate or access to and success in advanced course work. The decision of whether—and how—to measure teacher effectiveness is left completely to the states.
Regarding high schools, ESSA maintains requirements, such as a common graduation rate calculation and separate reporting of graduation rates for subgroups of students (African American, low-income, etc.), that have helped the nation’s high school graduation rate reach an all-time high while reducing the number of dropouts by nearly 30 percent. The bill adds a requirement that states intervene in high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent, but it leaves the type of intervention up to states. ESSA also requires school districts to provide support to traditionally underserved students who consistently demonstrate low performance, and it sets aside funds for schools and districts to implement evidence-based interventions.
“A new education law to replace the No Child Left Behind Act has been at the top of educators’ wish lists for many years,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “NCLB deserves credit for spotlighting gaps in achievement and graduation rates between white students and students of color, but after thirteen years, it is a DVD in a Netflix world. With more than 4,000 students still dropping out every school day, I am pleased that the Every Student Succeeds Act keeps the nation’s foot on the high school graduation rate pedal while also providing states and districts with a great deal of flexibility and responsibility. States and districts will decide how to act but action must take place. With states in the driver’s seat, I look forward to supporting their work to make every child a graduate, prepared for college and a career.”
ESSA has been widely praised by many groups, including the National Governors Association, which issued its first endorsement of a bill in nearly twenty years; U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Education Association; and American Federation of Teachers.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also issued a statement in support of the bill, saying that he was “encouraged that the bill passed by the House … would codify the vision that we have long advocated for giving a fair shot at a great education to every child in America—regardless of zip code. … Our nation deserves a law that prioritizes both excellence and equity for our students and supports great educators. We are pleased the House has voted in strong bipartisan fashion in favor of a bill that does that, and we look forward to the Senate moving quickly to do the same.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that ESSA will “cement” progress made in raising academic expectations, increasing graduation rates, and sending more students to college than ever before. “This bipartisan compromise is an important step forward, and we look forward to the Senate’s swift passage of this bill.”
The U.S. Senate will vote on ESSA as soon as December 8 and is expected to pass it in strong bipartisan fashion. It will then go to President Obama, who is expected to sign it given the statements of support from Duncan and Earnest.