When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law on December 10, 2015, he sent a clear message to the states: it’s your turn. A significant departure from its predecessor, the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA requires each state to create its own plan for identifying and supporting its lowest performing students and schools. While most state departments of education were gearing up to begin implementation of their ESSA plans in the 2018-19 school year, growing political unrest was bringing a landmark midterm election in November 2018. 8 gubernatorial races resulted in flipped seats, and 6 states have new chief education officers as a result. What does this mean for ESSA implementation, and more importantly, what does it mean for teachers and students?
So far, at least 5 states are considering amendments to their ESSA plans. New Mexico, where a Republican Governor was recently replaced by a Democrat, has submitted an overhaul of its plan, which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has yet to sign. Elsewhere, state legislatures have passed or are currently considering laws that would impact ESSA implementation, including changes to testing requirements, school improvement, and/or school grading.
If New Mexico’s amendment is approved, it would set an interesting precedent. Should states be allowed to change their plans for supporting schools and students every four years, or more frequently, on the political whims of state legislatures? While it’s admirable that decision-makers want to get their plans right, frequent changes to standards, accountability, testing, and consequences for low performance have the potential to confuse and disempower both teachers and students.
Every public school teacher in America knows the frustration of the revolving door of initiatives; ideas to improve schools that come and go with each new principal, superintendent, or policy trend. Right now, those trends are tied to the foundational concepts of standards and accountability.
Take our home state of Utah as an example. Students took the RISE test in May (or Aspire +, for 9th through 11th grade), a change from SAGE, which had been administered only since 2013. The state is also in the midst of adopting new science standards that call for both a change in content and pedagogy. School report cards were overhauled last year to align with ESSA, but they may change again if a bill to abolish letter grades introduced during the 2019 session makes it to the Governor’s desk next year. While ongoing debate over these issues may seem pertinent to policymakers, the result in Utah’s classrooms is often a feeling of helplessness. How is student achievement supposed to improve when teachers barely have a chance to wrap their heads around what will be on the test each year?
The importance of teachers understanding their standards and how they’ll be assessed cannot be overstated. Noted education researcher John Hattie found that teacher clarity, or a teacher’s genuine understanding of what students should know and be able to do, and what it will look like when they’re successful, is one of the top 10 most impactful strategies a teacher can use. Achieving teacher clarity involves real time and effort – work that’s lost each time state standards and assessments are changed.
For standards-based accountability to work for students, teachers need to know what they’re aiming for. So, an educator’s plea to lawmakers: choose smart, evidence-based policies, and then give teachers enough time to really implement them.