Four Years Later After the Passage of ESSA, Policymakers, Education and Civil Rights Stakeholders Weigh In

A Statement from Jim Cowen, Executive Director of  the Collaborative for Student Success

Yesterday, on the four-year anniversary of the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Collaborative for Student Success and Education Week convened a summit in Washington, D.C., with the law’s congressional co-authors, policymakers, education experts, and other stakeholders. The purpose was to review the marquee federal education law’s implementation and identify challenges and opportunities as ESSA is put into practice across the nation.

As I noted in my opening remarks, ESSA returned much—but not all—of the reigns of education policy to the states. Since its passage, and in the context of lighter federal oversight of state education policy, the Collaborative for Student Success has been closely monitoring how faithfully states are implementing the law and proactively communicating our findings to the education community.

We are particularly concerned with questions of equity, as education policy in the United States goes beyond reading, writing and math – the right to a quality education is a civil right. Through ESSA, we want to ensure and reinforce that in America’s schools, every student—including those from historically underserved communities of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds and students with disabilities and English learners—receives an equitable and quality education. We strongly support the increased transparency requirements in the law that open the door for parents and educators to better understand test scores and where education dollars are spent, and celebrate that the law has brought communities together to discuss how they see school improvement under their state plan.  We are also pleased that so many states have maintained a commitment to high standards as they’ve rolled out the law.

The highlight of the summit was a keynote lunch with Sen. Lamar Alexander, (R-Tenn.), Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Va.), and retired Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.)—three of ESSA’s primary authors—moderated by Education Week’s Alyson Klein. The panel discussed the challenges they faced in getting the law passed, how they overcame them, and how they feel about the final product. They were also in considerable agreement that the deep-seated animosity toward No Child Left Behind was a major driver of the passage of ESSA, as well as that the law is likely to govern education policy for the foreseeable future. “I think this is likely to be the framework of federal education policy for some time to come,” said Alexander, before he noted that: “Once states really understand how flexible ESSA is, I think you’ll see states making more changes and being more innovative.”

The lawmakers hailed the hard work of bipartisanship—and the trust and patience involved—as critical to their success, as well as the law’s focus on civil rights and achievement gaps. “One of the things I’m most proud of is maintaining the civil rights legacy” of previous bills in ESSA, Scott said. The panelists disagreed, however, as to the efficacy of the Trump administration’s implementation of the law, as well as the proper role of federal oversight of state education policy. But Kline said that had ESSA contained more explicit federal oversight, the law might not have passed due to Republican resistance. “We can’t get exactly what we want. Useful for all of us in this room to remember that,” Kline said. “If you actually want a law passed, you need to compromise.”

Later on at the event, we heard from another one of ESSA’s key authors, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Murray acknowledged the positive work done by Alexander, Scott, and Kline to get the law passed, and said she was proud to have played a key role in producing legislation with the aim to make sure every student gets a good education. However, she said, “Just because we pass a law, doesn’t mean our work is done,” noting that “flexibility and accountability is the key to making sure states can create tailored environments while also making sure all students get what they need to succeed.”

The event also featured candid conversations with and among education experts on a variety of topics, including:

Improving Schools and Advancing Equity. Opened by Dr. Caitlin Scott, research director at the Learning Policy Institute, and moderated by Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa, this panel discussion featured the National Urban League’s Susie Feliz, the National Education Association’s Becky Pringle, the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Lindsay Jones, and the Country Music Association Foundation’s Mendell Grinter.

Assessments From Reality to Possibility. Opened by Dale Chu, senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and primary author of the Testing 1-2-3 Blog, and moderated by Education Week’s Evie Blad, this panel discussion featured North Dakota Chief Kirsten Baesler, NewMexicoKidsCan’s Amanda Aragon, NWEA’s Chris Minnich, Cognia’s Stephen Murphy, and Curriculum Associates’ Rob Waldron.

Military-Connected Students: What Can We Learn From Their School Performance? Opened by Kline, and moderated by Education Week’s Daarel Burnette II, this panel discussion featured Military Families for High Standards’ Christi Ham, the Lexington Institute’s Doug Mesecar, and Knob Noster Superintendent Jerrod Wheeler.

Follow the Money – Advancing Equity with Per-Pupil Data. Opened by Dr. Marguerite Roza, Research Professor and Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, and also moderated by Education Week’s Daarel Burnette II, this panel discussion featured The Education Trust’s Ary Amerikaner, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee, and Florida Elementary School Principal Shari Bremekamp.

Closing remarks were delivered by Democratic Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who reiterated the point that ESSA is here to stay. “We should all be pretty confident that fed ed policy won’t be changing again anytime soon. That is really important, and a message we need to deliver to people in the states. Gives them the opportunity to double down on the things that are working well,” he said. Markell also noted that we should “double down on high expectations.”

Ultimately, the event honed in on several key takeaways, such as:

  • By and large, the law is working. As Ujifusa writes, four years after ESSA became law, “a group of state and local education officials, teachers unions, and others are telling Congress that they’ve made great progress under the law and that it could lead to significant advances in addressing the achievement gap between different groups of students and in improving schools.”
  • ESSA is likely to remain the principle federal education policy for many, many years. Partly, this is because the bill is working. But it is also because there is no groundswell of public support for sweeping change (as there was under NCLB). However, as Murray noted, if the law isn’t implemented correctly, public opinion could shift quickly.
  • Bipartisanship is still possible—and very much still matters. Despite some continued disagreement as to the federal role under the law, there was broad agreement at the event that passage of such sweeping legislation in a time of significant partisan strife was a major achievement for bipartisanship, helping to produce a bill that is perfect for none but good for many.
  • Innovative assessments are a place where real positive change can and should happen. However, there is significant tension between the need to put resources towards reaching the goals of long-term achievement improvements through efforts such as innovative assessments and supporting current students succeed in the here and now.

For many years, the education community has worked tirelessly to do what is best for young people through standards, assessments, and other efforts. ESSA at its core recognized that states and districts are in the best position to realize this goal and vision for our nation’s students. But with that came the responsibility of taking the hard steps of ensuring it would happen. That is the hard work the Collaborative has undertaken over the last four years.

A big thank you to all those who participated in this important event—and to those working in good faith to implement ESSA and help improve our nation’s schools.