1-aasa-logo.jpg school innovations and achievement

This document is one in a series of reports on key aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) produced in a partnership between AASA, The School Superintendents Association and School Innovations & Achievement’s Cabinet Report. The full set of resources is available at aasa.org/AASAESSA.aspx.

The big picture view of ESSA

As a legislative package, the Every Student Succeeds Act isn’t a complete rewrite of existing federal education law, as has been the case in the past. In fact, large parts of the No Child Left Behind Act remain unchanged as Congress chose to revise only specific sections to chart new directions for the nation’s K-12 schools.

As a starting point, here’s a brief summary of major elements of federal law that have not changed:

  • States still control what is actually taught in the classroom, including adoption of curriculum standards and frameworks.
  • States retain authority over testing programs, what systems to use and generally (outside of certain grade level dictates) when to administer them.
  • Reporting on subgroup performance remains largely the same, although there are some exceptions.
  • Title I funding formula and distribution continues as it always has, flowing from the federal government to states and then to local educational agencies.
  • State planning reports have become simplified but, in general, remain largely as before. 

The new stuff

It might be argued that the single biggest modification Congress performed, drastically cutting back the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Education, is more political than educational.

No doubt in response to the Obama administration’s liberal use of the secretary’s waiver powers under prior versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, lawmakers from both parties wanted to ensure that no future president could so easily bypass the legislative process and enact a singular vision of education policy. Thus, ESSA calls out specific prohibitions on the secretary:

  • Setting criteria through regulation or fiat that would require states to adopt certain policies in exchange for flexibility of federal mandates.
  • Require or incentivize states to adopt certain standards or assessments, instructional content, programs of instruction or other forms of curricula.
  • Deny approval of state plans without substantial evidence supporting action.
  • Deny waiver applications without substantial evidence supporting action.
  • Order states to adopt specific accountability programs.
  • Endorse a specific curriculum or develop a federally-sponsored assessment program.

An anonymous source of The Washington Post may have said it best: ESSA allows the secretary of education to “go across the street and get a cup of coffee.”

Easily the second largest change that ESSA ushers in is that states are now in charge of setting school performance standards and putting in place accountability provisions. The entire federal infrastructure for identifying low-performing districts and schools has been eliminated.

That is, no more Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and Program Improvement. ESSA also puts an end to tutoring as part of supplemental educational services and does away with the federal definition for “highly qualified” teachers, instead relying, for the most part, on “applicable State certification and licensure requirements” (except in the case of magnet schools, where the word “effective” is used as a descriptor). (ESSA §§ 4401 & 9214, et. seq., Pub. L. No. 114-95)

States will still have to identify the lowest performing 5 percent of schools and to develop turnaround plans. ESSA gives states the ability to reserve up to 7 percent of the Title I funding to support local education agencies for “school improvement” and another 3 percent to assist LEAs with “direct student services.” (ESSA §§ 1003 & 1003A, et. seq., Pub. L. No. 114-95)