Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Is ESSA a Retreat from Equity? the Every Student Succeeds Act Includes Guardrails to Protect Equity, but Vigilance Is Needed to Ensure States Don't Go around Them

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Is ESSA a Retreat from Equity? the Every Student Succeeds Act Includes Guardrails to Protect Equity, but Vigilance Is Needed to Ensure States Don't Go around Them

Article excerpt

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. It was then--and still remains--not only the federal government's greatest investment in primary and secondary education but also, as Johnson noted at the time, "a major ... commitment of the federal government to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people."

Fifty years later, in 2015, ESEA was reauthorized in bipartisan fashion and signed into law by President Barack Obama as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--the previous iteration of ESEA--and ushering in a new era of educational governance and leadership. But will this new version of the law continue to advance the cause of "quality and equality" touted by Johnson?

ESSA was intended to fix NCLB's many flaws, particularly its narrow emphasis on using standardized tests to measure school performance and hold educators accountable for student achievement. However, it's important to remember that NCLB also had its benefits. Perhaps most important, it shined a bright light on the academic performance of specific student populations, or "subgroups" (including students with disabilities, English learners, children from low-income backgrounds, and Black and Latinx children), whose needs have received too little attention, over many decades, from education policy makers at the state and local levels. With its relentless pressure on states and school districts to eliminate achievement gaps, NCLB reflected a federal effort to more tightly bind together an often-fragmented educational system and eliminate inequities. As former undersecretary for education Eugene Hickok (2003) put it, NCLB made it "more difficult to close one's eyes to persistent underperformance by students and schools" (p. 22).

One has to wonder, now that ESSA has relaxed NCLB's many federal requirements, will states take advantage of their newfound flexibility to design educational systems that better meet the needs of all children? Or, absent any real pressure from the federal government, will they make little effort to address disparities among subgroups of students?

To answer these questions, we examine key provisions of the new law, provide an update on states' implementation, and speculate as to whether the return to state and local control is more likely to promote educational equity or undermine it.

Equity under ESSA: The law and its implementation

Although requirements related to student subgroup performance have loosened under ESSA, equity concerns are not entirely absent from the law. Four requirements stand out: (1) Within the ESSA plans they submit to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), states must explicitly describe how they intend to address equity concerns. (2) States must report school-level per-pupil spending when they issue school report cards (Amerikaner, 2018). (3) States have to identify and address any inequities in resources for schools that need support and improvement. And (4) districts are incentivized to implement strategies for funding schools based on student need and to expand opportunities for traditionally underserved students (Cook-Harvey et al., 2016).

However, when assessing ESSA's potential to promote equity, we must look beyond the letter of the law to the ways in which states are actually interpreting and implementing it. For instance, how are states incorporating additional measures of school quality--beyond NCLB's narrow focus on student test scores and graduation rates--and what implications might that have for equity?

The new school quality indicator most commonly included in state ESSA plans is chronic absenteeism (which is strongly associated with poor performance in school), with 36 states and the District of Columbia including it in their accountability systems. In addition, nine states include a measure of school suspension rates, and eight states plan to use student surveys to measure school climate (Kostyo, Cardichon, & Darling-Hammond, 2018). …

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