An Act of Congress (in three parts): A history of ESSA

By Christopher Lohse, Former Educator

Part 1: Inaction

The spring of 1930 in the United States was the first post-winter bloom spent in the throes of the Great Depression. Already, public ire for Congress grew with each day of perceived legislative lethargy in addressing the nation’s deep economic woes. And like so many times of discontent in American history, Americans turned to favored pastimes to distract them from their frustrations.

For Bostonians then and now, perhaps no pastime held, or holds, more favor than baseball. Fervent in their hometown Red Sox enthusiasm, they listened patiently for news from even practice scrimmages conducted at the Red Sox annual spring training in Pensacola, Florida. At the end of March, the Sox suited up for an exhibition game against the minor league Louisville Colonels (their mascot looked conspicuously like Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame, also hailing from Kentucky, incidentally). Red Sox fans without a radio were delighted to read legendary baseball writer Burt Whitman’s 30 March 1930 account in the Boston Herald under the headline, “Red Sox Rout Louisville, 9-1.”

Whitman, in referencing the center field play, struck a nerve with his readers when he described one player’s disposition as “entrenched in centre [sic] field so strongly that it will take an act of Congress to get him out.” His readers knew what he meant. Waiting on Congressional action was like waiting for Godot.

The phrase—an Act of Congress—has become part of our cultural vernacular over the years, invoked whenever something seems impossibly difficult to change—and with increasingly more justification. Congressional activity over the last several decades is well represented in this piece from the Brookings Institution, where a graph of bills passed by the House and Senate lays bare just how anemic activity in the nation’s capital has become.

Education legislation had been a leading casualty of Congressional inaction. The landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), championed by the Lyndon Johnson administration as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, had been reviewed and re-authorized by Congress six times—with six or seven year periods typically lapsing between successive authorizations.

Though the most recent reauthorization of ESEA—No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—proved deeply and increasingly unpopular with both educators and the general public, Congress could not agree on a set of authorizing remedies. NCLB’s required reauthorization in 2007 slipped to 2008, then 2009, and six long years and three failed re-writes later, few Washington speculators at the beginning of 2015 gave much credit to a budding reauthorization effort spearheaded by the new Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Part 2: Surprise

Alexander, a former Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, saw a tremendous challenge. NCLB had called for all students to be proficient on academic exams by 2014. Clearly, the nation had not met that mark. Was it preferable to demand that schools thus operate under failing school status, as the law indicated? Or should he continue to allow the executive branch to monitor performance, granting waivers to states who aligned with policy prerogatives that they, the executive branch, demanded? Many scholars, on both sides of the political aisle, felt the Secretary of Education’s waiver authority was exercising far too much legislative authority from the executive branch—violating the sacred separation of powers animated by the US Constitution. Alexander agreed.

Congress that had just wrapped up had been the least productive in history, and there were few signs that anyone wanted to work together after the Congressional mid-terms of 2014 saw Senate power change the identities of the majority and minority. He was going to need an Act of Congress, figuratively, to get his literal one, eight years late and 15 years since the last landmark bill.

Working hand-in-hand with the ranking member on Senate HELP (the title given to the highest ranking member of the minority party on a given committee), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the two set to craft a bill that could provide greater certainty to a field of educators anxious to resolve the challenges Alexander had identified. Each worked tirelessly within and across their caucuses to build support for the bill. Contentious issues were promised a hearing on the Senate floor, but not a vote for inclusion within committee, allowing the committee to report a bill that steered away from significant controversy.

Still, much of Washington watched with half-hearted interest, still certain that the bill stood no chance of passage.

More late nights, more food delivery bills, and more sleepy staff days later, the bill was ready for a committee vote on whether to send the bill to the Senate floor.

It passed, 22-0.

Part 3: Implementation

By December of 2015, President Obama was signing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. Newspapers at the time were slightly breathless. The Wall Street Journal characterized it as “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.” The New York Times triumphantly declared “the end of an era in which the federal government aggressively policed public school performance… returning control to states and local districts.” Even Burt Whitman’s Boston Herald joined the chorus, promising that ESSA “gives the states much more latitude” over the design and implementation of their school systems.

From a policy point of view, those appreciations of ESSA may hold some water. Most significantly, ESSA ends NCLB’s sole reliance on test scores as the arbiter of school quality, replacing it with a suite of multiple measures. The measures include academic growth for elementary and middle schools (and as an option for high schools), the school’s ability to help its students learn English, and other indicators of school quality like the climate of the school or the social and emotional health of its students.

Moreover, when a school is struggling, ESSA (unlike NCLB) demands no prescribed set of sanctions and activities—Alexander argued successfully that how districts and states deal with struggling performance is their business. Improvement efforts, he argued, will be more successful if decided locally because building political will within a community earns the strategy necessary buy-in. Several grant programs were also rolled together, increasing state and local autonomy over how funds are spent.

Despite these changes, however, it’s unclear how different school will feel to students and parents in the fall of 2017, the first year of full implementation of ESSA. The bill couldn’t be too radical; a more disruptive bill invited failure in the legislative process, or beckoned a Presidential veto. As a result, parents may see a different annual report card from their district or school, but in order to see some of the more substantive changes called for by the public recently, state and local officials will need to exercise authority.

One particularly contentious issue in recent years, for instance, has been the perception of over-testing in American schools. There are resources and flexibilities in the bill for states and districts to change their approach to assessment—potentially shrinking the amount of time spent in summative assessment, allowing space for computer-adaptive instruments, and getting more actionable data in the hands of educators in a just-in-time way, but none of that happens passively in the legislation. State and local policy-makers need to craft these systems themselves.

In the coming months, the government affairs team at Renaissance Learning will be focused on helping states and districts understand all of their options—and the implications flowing from each of those options—in crafting their assessment and accountability systems. Our computer-adaptive STAR assessments are often beloved by educators, tantalizing policy-makers to draft our assessments into a state accountability framework.

However, we urge caution. Perhaps the reason STAR assessments provide value to teachers is precisely because Renaissance Learning is not an accountability tool. When educators fear the accountability decision that flows from their deployment of an assessment, our measures could be used more sparingly, creating more instructional blind spots in more American classrooms—an outcome no one wants.

Nevertheless, there are limited ways we foresee servicing distinct accountability goals. Given our relationship is with districts (Renaissance Learning does not actively seek state business, instead advocating for open markets or approved lists of providers in states), if a district seeks to use STAR assessments to indicate academic progress, we will be happy to share their information with their state. Renaissance Learning, however, will never share district data without the district’s permission, and we will not advocate with states to mandate the use of STAR assessments to districts. To do so would break faith with Renaissance Learning customers and cripple decision-making that we feel strongly often needs to be tailored district-by-district.

STAR assessments, for instance, are not necessarily administered in specific testing windows, making them eminently useful for districts with high rates of student mobility. Teachers can gain quick insight on a new transfer student’s academic achievement, rather than having to wait for the next available testing window. The test that’s right for the low-mobility district might then be very different from the test that’s right for the high-mobility district.

The work ahead is exciting, and just beginning to get underway in earnest. We look forward to working with allies in the field all around the United States in helping to craft assessment and accountability regimens that help the legislation achieve its aspirational namesake—to make every student a success. In many ways, the Act of Congress is a call to action, and a call for local responsibility. Renaissance Learning hears that call, and is prepared to eagerly respond by companioning our most sincere, heartfelt efforts and good will to the cause.

As ESSA goes through its full implementation, we’ll be blogging on what we’re seeing and how it relates to teachers, districts, and states. To continue the conversation, make sure you click “Subscribe” below to receive our latest insights.

Christopher Lohse, Former Educator
Christopher Lohse, Former Educator
A former high school chemistry, physics, and biology teacher in Los Angeles, CA, Christopher holds advanced degrees in teaching, curriculum, and public policy. Chris currently lives in New York, NY, where he nurses far too many hobbies and interests—from English decorative arts to cycling to the search for exceptional sandwiches.

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