It was one of the few times that a law moved through both the Senate and House relatively quickly in recent years, and as such the bipartisan agreement was lauded as remarkable. Even President Obama called it a “Christmas miracle” when he signed the reauthorization of the federal education act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the reauthorization was touted as federal legislation that devolved more authority to the states in assessing school success after years of direct federal intervention.
On closer examination, ESSA may not have as much of a positive impact on educational reform and student success as some would hope.
“I think ESSA is a small step away from the wrong direction, but we’re still heading in that wrong direction,” said Professor Tina Trujillo, who co-edited a book (Information Age Publishing; 2016) on the topic, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Accountability, standards and assessment have shifted under ESSA, giving more latitude to the states. One of the largest problems with ESSA, Trujillo said, is that school performance is still defined primarily by high-stakes test scores that don’t necessarily reflect quality teaching and learning.
What’s more, under the revised legislation, there remains little or no public discourse about the other purposes of public education.
“ESSA continues a very narrow way of thinking about the goals of public schools in part because it implies that the purposes of public education are primarily economic ones – to produce students who can be competitive in the workplace,” she said. “The civic purposes, social purposes, communitarian purposes, and all these other aims that we have for our schools are relegated to the margins because almost all of the resources and attention and energy go into reforming our schools in the service of individuals’ test scores –not in the service of these other goals.”
Her latest book, co-edited with William J. Mathis, University of Colorado, Boulder, is designed to inform the conversation on ESSA and as it is implemented, serve as a reminder that closing the opportunity gap means concurrently addressing not just educational, but social and economic divides.
Research shows that test-based reforms alone fall short of expected goals and often times create unintended negative consequences such as unequal enrollment patterns, exacerbated gaps in performance, destabilized schools, and continually segregated schools, Trujillo said. Successful reforms must be accompanied by other forms of civic capacity-building.
“I think that we still need certain tests. Some tests are still very important. But we need to incorporate a range of tests that are sensitive enough to help us evaluate our students’ learning from a formative perspective,” she said.
“Unfortunately, testing in this country has been used mostly as a sorting mechanism, not a diagnostic tool,” she said. “We should be using testing for the purposes of understanding where our students are learning, and where we can adapt our instruction and other resources to better serve them.”
The reauthorization of ESSA presents opportunities in higher education, as well, said the GSE's Dean Prudence Carter.
The GSE could do more to encourage cross disciplinary research in order to foster a greater understanding of the educational landscape. Contemporary scholars, researchers, and practitioners would do well to not only be specialists in their specific area but also to be generalists who know more about educational theory and multiple methods and pedagogies, she said.
“The new law is opening up a whole new landscape of possibilities for research and certainly new possibilities for teaching, learning, and assessment,” Carter said.
“If you think about education as a multidimensional landscape where there are many different challenges and problems that require attention, there’s room for all of these different roles and disciplines to be a part of the improvement.”
By Dara Tom