States Plan for Sensible School Reform under an Obama-Era Law

(Photo: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Dreamstime)
Born of bipartisan concern over federal intrusion into K–12 education, the Every Student Succeeds Act may soon bear fruit.

In Washington, a big part of the Republican project for 2017 is cleaning up a litany of Obama excesses. But in the states, perhaps the biggest challenges will be fulfilling the promise of the last major law that Obama signed — the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). States are now finalizing plans for how, beginning this fall, they will proceed under ESSA.

ESSA was enacted in December 2015 by massive majorities in both houses of Congress, largely because both parties had grown tired of the Obama administration’s feckless intrusions into K–12 education. On the right, conservative activists were up in arms about Washington’s efforts to bribe and coerce states into adopting the Common Core. On the left, teachers’ unions were every bit as upset over similar efforts to get states to embrace half-baked, one-size-fits-all teacher-evaluation systems. That unlikely alliance turned the old genial, bipartisan consensus for a steadily expanding federal role in education on its head, and the Wall Street Journal cheered ESSA as “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.”

ESSA marked a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, and held out the promise of restraining a Department of Education that had run amok. Such hopes dimmed as Obama’s secretary of education, proposing to extend the department’s authority through a law intended to limit it, promised to micromanage school-level spending when the law plainly prohibited that.

Now that Congress has wisely used the Congressional Review Act to overturn Obama-administration regulations intended to supersize Washington’s role under the law, the way is wide open for states to step up. In a pleasant change of pace, the question for governors and state school leaders is no longer how to cope with an out-of-control Uncle Sam. It is how to make the new law work for their students. Governors, legislators, and local school leaders eager to do just that will find big opportunities for the taking.

State leaders should recast school accountability so that it focuses on improving all schools, not just the worst ones. Under No Child Left Behind, policymakers focused narrowly on reading and math scores. There is evidence that this helped raise those scores in some struggling schools, but only by prompting educators to deemphasize other content and skills — and by prompting education officials to treat “good enough” schools as an afterthought. States can and should focus on performance and growth in reading and math but also on other skills and disciplines that parents care deeply about. Are students learning science and history? Are schools teaching world languages and the arts? What share of students are scoring well on Advanced Placement exams or finishing high school with career-ready vocational credentials? States needn’t necessarily “grade” schools on all of these things. But their simply collecting and reporting this information will help make schools more attentive to parents concerned about more than standardized test scores.

State education leaders would do well to employ ESSA’s direct student-services provision, which allows states to set aside a portion of federal Title I funds in order to support districts that are expanding instructional choice (in addition to school choice) for students. This means expanding choices for students without requiring that they opt to change schools, as with “course access” programs. Such initiatives, pioneered in Louisiana and Utah, use state funds to provide students the opportunity to access a range of online courses that their school might not offer — and to pursue them at their own pace. Under ESSA, states can use up to 3 percent of federal Title I funds to deliver online-course options that give rural students access to subjects that their schools don’t offer, to give all students access to Advanced Placement, and to give high schools the ability to deliver robust career and technical training.

For two decades, education reform has been marked by a myopic focus on reading and math and a puzzling faith in the sagacity of federal bureaucrats.

Education reformers have focused almost exclusively on improving reading and math scores for low-performing students stuck in failing schools. It’s long past time to unlock the potential of bright students who are being underserved. State leaders who value both equity and excellence could take advantage of ESSA’s funding flexibility to establish a course-access program largely on the federal government’s dime.

States also have the opportunity to identify and improve failing schools more effectively. In the later years of No Child Left Behind, even good schools started to feel the threat of being labeled “failing” and narrowed their curriculum in an effort to improve scores on reading and math tests. Under the Obama administration, a $7 billion federal program to improve failing schools showed literally no results. That’s the trouble with top-down guidelines from Washington: They’re sure to create unintended consequences, and there’s little reason to believe that following a script set by the Department of Education will lead schools to improve.

It’s possible for states to do better, working from the bottom up. They can craft accountability systems that identify failing schools without harming good ones, and they can be innovative and flexible in encouraging school-improvement strategies on a case-by-case basis.

There’s plenty more, but this is a healthy place to start.

For two decades, education reform has been marked by a myopic focus on reading and math and a puzzling faith in the sagacity of federal bureaucrats. Many on the left are worried that schools will be lost absent Washington’s detailed directives. Color us skeptical on that count, and optimistic about the opportunity that ESSA has given states to pursue education reforms that support every school, serve every student, and speak to the aspiration of every parent.

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