At the end of last year, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002 was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which fundamentally redefines success and reallocates accountability.
Although NCLB was designed to improve innovation and outcomes in public education, it resulted in the unpopular enforcement of one-size-fits-all exams and school goals. By 2011, nearly half of all schools across the nation were labeled as “failing” because they were not making “adequate yearly progress” as defined by NCLB. Meanwhile, taxpayers were spending three times as much on annual testing—topping out at almost $2 billion per year.
In spite of these flaws in implementation, NCLB deserves credit for helping increase the focus of education policy on measurement and accountability. Fortunately, parents, teachers and public officials were quick to articulate the many problems with NCLB and recommend ways to revise and improve the benchmarks.
ESSA requires that states continue to evaluate student outcomes, but it recalibrates the definitions of success. Whereas NCLB insufficiently addressed the existence of multiple points of assessment and evaluation, ESSA allows freedom to choose from a wide range of metrics to measure success, such as graduation rates, student and teacher engagement, and school safety. One significant positive result of this recalibration is that standardized test scores are no longer the be-all determinants of achievement. Under NCLB, curricula were often revamped to focus exclusively on narrow, test-related subject matter at the expense of holistic learning. Without such stringent, singular pressures, ESSA allows a rural school in Arkansas to excel in different areas than an urban school in San Francisco, and both can be considered successful.
In addition, ESSA provides states with significantly more independence surrounding what is measured and who is responsible. Instead of enforcing universal standards with strict funding punishments (as NCLB did), the Department of Education now leaves accountability goals up to the states. Fluid standards and practices that vary by state are intended to empower school systems to innovate and tailor new solutions to specific needs. Plus, as states adopt new approaches and track success over time, schools will be capable of reviewing progress, refining strategies, and augmenting what works best.
Idaho is already capitalizing on the flexibility allowed by ESSA. In March, Idaho legislators signed the Local Innovation Schools Act, which will allow designated “innovation schools” to operate outside some state and district regulations to foster a more innovative learning environment for students. For example, a school in the Nampa School District is planning to focus education around leadership-based projects through which students can impact their communities while gaining meaningful experience. These schools will still be held accountable to testing standards, but the flexibility will allow Idaho educators to assess whether new pedagogical strategies should be scaled throughout the state.
There is perhaps no greater responsibility for teachers, parents, and policymakers than to collaborate in creating an educational environment where children can learn and thrive. Because ESSA maintains the importance of measurement and accountability while expanding schools’ independence, Utah and many other states are increasingly empowering local schools to develop student learning in a manner that best aligns with regional needs. Not only does this approach improve outcomes, but it also engages parents and communities, and boosts local jobs.
As with any new policy, implementation will be critical to ESSA’s success. States will need to carefully select meaningful trackable indicators and achievable goals that focus on learning outcomes. Fortunately, with the tools proffered by our digital golden age, schools are more capable than ever before of both tracking and responding to a sophisticated range of metrics. It is up to parents, teachers, and lawmakers alike to harness these tools and ensure that every student has a chance to succeed in the increasingly-competitive global marketplace.