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Deeper Learning Under ESSA: Seven Priorities

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By Rafael Heller, principal policy analyst for Jobs for the Future.


Ask three policy wonks what they think of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and you'll likely get four or five answers.

At recent meetings and conferences, experts have told me that ESSA "kills off No Child Left Behind, once and for all," and they've also told me that it amounts to "NCLB 2.0." I've heard ESSA called both a "game changer" and "the same old, same old." I've been assured that it symbolizes a renewed commitment to the principle of local control, and I've been assured that it's just a temporary stopgap measure, giving federalists a chance to catch their breath and plan for the next reauthorization, five years hence.  

Things should become a bit clearer by the fall of 2017, once the U.S. Department of Education has completed its rulemaking process and the states have developed their plans for implementing the new law. But for now, nobody seems to be able to agree on ESSA's political significance or its practical implications for public education.

On the other hand, advocates for deeper learning have had no trouble coming to consensus on the sorts of policy priorities they'd like to pursue. Over the last several months--starting with Turning the Corner: Toward a New Policy Agenda for College, Career, & Civic Readiness, a two-day meeting convened by Jobs for the Future in October 2015--my colleagues and I at JFF have engaged in conversation with dozens of partner organizations, teachers, administrators, state officials, researchers, and many others to come up with guiding principles for school improvement in the years to come. If not the strategies emphasized by NCLB and Race to the Top--e.g., test-based accountability, teacher evaluation, and school turnarounds--then what ideas and goals should we pursue?

As we describe in a new policy brief, Advancing Deeper Learning under ESSA (free to download from the JFF web site), we've heard strong support for seven priorities in particular:

  • Seize the moment to promote equitable opportunities for deeper learning: Let's take advantage of the public's growing awareness of income and wealth gaps by calling for resources to be directed to those who need them most, especially youth from low-income backgrounds, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
  • Create assessments that persuade parents and students to opt in, not out: It's time for advocates to shift their energy from protesting poorly conceived tests to designing better systems of assessment--featuring high-quality, formative uses of measurement--that are truly useful to states, schools, communities, and families.
  • Focus on building a professional teaching culture: Teachers need many more opportunities to co-design courses, materials, and assessments; observe one another in the classroom; consult about the needs of individual students; form reading groups to stay current in their fields; and so on.
  • Emphasize capacity, not compliance: After a dozen years of NCLB, state and district leaders should think twice before creating new top-down policy mandates that foster compliance, not creativity. Further, they should provide local educators with far more support to help them implement the policies that are already on the books.
  • Remove imaginary barriers to school improvement: Sometimes rules and regulations aren't the problem. All too often, local educators give up on good ideas because they assume that current policies won't allow them to move forward. But if they look a bit harder, they may very well find that no such policies exist.
  • Get serious about career readiness: Work-based learning is enjoying a renaissance in much of the U.S., and its current form appears to be entirely complementary with efforts to teach the range of high-level cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills that we call deeper learning.
  • Strengthen partnerships between high school and higher education: If states seriously aim to help all high school students become "college ready," they will have to create meaningful incentives and opportunities for the secondary and post-secondary sectors to collaborate more closely.

For more details on each of these recommendations, please check out the policy brief. And let us know if you have ideas to add to the list--we expect these priorities to evolve over time, as ESSA moves from planning to implementation.

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