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New Year, New Legislation, New Opportunities

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Why ESSA's biggest impact will be felt outside the classroom

A guest post by Dr. Stephan Knobloch

As an educator who specializes in research, I often counsel school administrators and teachers who are frustrated by what they see as complex and confusing federal and state policy requirements affecting their students.

As the nation's schools open their doors on 2016, I wonder how many school leaders share a similar sentiment when trying to wrap their post-holiday brains around the vast and uncertain implications of the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The bipartisan passage of ESSA introduced a handful of ambitious reforms meant to distance federal education law from its stagnant and much-maligned predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). You know the broad strokes: ESSA gives more power to states in defining success and failure. The new law is also committed to dialing back NCLB's over-reliance on standardized tests as the primary measure of school's and students' success.

No matter where you stand, these are potentially transformative reforms. Of course, history tells us that what a law intends to do and what it actually does may be worlds apart. The hoped-for results of reform are often lost in translation.

Even the most optimistic educators are frustrated by ambitious yet ineffective education policy. Doubtful of substantive change, many feel a dangerous temptation to disregard the sentiment of positive reform and simply tick the checkbox of federal compliance.

In the case of ESSA, such actions would be egregiously shortsighted. While it will be years before schools can accurately gauge the impact of the new law on the quality of American education, certain elements of the reauthorization pave the way for progress.

Beyond Testing: Looking at the Whole Student

Perhaps the biggest knock on NCLB--and arguably, the most warranted--was that it put far too much stock in standardized tests. Schools had little choice: Improve reading and math scores or spend the foreseeable future fighting the stigma of failure. Recall NCLB's required 100% pass rate by 2014. The number of failing schools rose, legislators were slow to respond, and waivers followed.

In its efforts to turn around low-performing schools, the federal government has historically measured success through purely academic indicators. But we know now that this isn't the surest, or most comprehensive, litmus test of performance.

ESSA forces turnaround leaders to take a broader view of school improvement by expanding the lens of success to other non-academic indicators, such as school culture and professional development. Such factors have an effect on academic performance, though their impact takes considerable time and patience to effectively measure. If you're looking for a quick statistical fix, these changes won't likely do you much good. But if it's substantive change you're after, give it some time: Such indicators could pay significant dividends down the road.

Expanding the Scope of Community Engagement 

It isn't just the scope of student performance that's wider under ESSA. The new law deliberately expands the scope of accountability beyond yearly testing metrics to include other non-academic factors, such as school climate and student engagement.

These legislative changes couldn't have come at a better time. Across the country, students, parents, and community members are starved for greater involvement in public education. A quick online search for the terms "parent engagement" and "transparency" reveals a stark and persistent disconnect between many of our best schools and the communities they serve.

Purposefully listening to students and parents or guardians through focus groups and research-backed surveys can produce meaningful, actionable data that helps school leaders address the challenges confronting them. These types of feedback tools are not new. But school leaders using them for authentic listening, community engagement, and trust building is new, and can make the difference.

After 15 years, it's natural to wonder whether NCLB's focus on student testing is at least partly to blame for the level of neglect we see in other key aspects of public education.

It's not difficult to understand why so many educators are inclined to take a wait-and-see-approach on ESSA. The previous decade has not exactly instilled confidence in the ability of legislators to improve public education. The jury is still out on the new law. But we needn't wait for history to define its legacy. Let's embrace this opportunity to redefine school success. Let's use ESSA's new, more holistic approach to engage the public in the positive transformation of public education.

How's that for a New Year's resolution?  

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Dr. Stephan Knobloch, the former director of research for Loudoun County Public Schools (VA) is senior vice president of research at Virginia-based K12 Insight.

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