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What ESSA Means for Teachers and Leaders

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has amounted to a grand old time for Washington's education lobbyists, advocates, journalists, and analysts. There are intense discussions about how the Department of Education will implement this or that piece of the 1,000-page law. There are meetings to devise strategies and talk messaging and new opportunities to pitch funders on urgent projects. Hell, there was even a "Star Search" competition to see who could dream up the niftiest hypothetical accountability system.

While Washington's education crowd is having a ball, it's become pretty clear to me over the last few months that most teachers, school leaders, and system administrators have little idea what ESSA says or means. Having had a number of chances to see experts explain ESSA to school and district folks, I've noticed how easily practical implications get lost amidst jargon, talk about titles and programs, and particulars regarding funding levels and definitions.

This is a problem. After all, most of today's educators have never worked in a world without NCLB. And those of us who've been around long enough to remember a pre-NCLB world have lived under NCLB so long that we may have trouble recalling anything else. ESSA will only deliver on the opportunities it seeks to create if those people making decisions in states, systems, and schools understand what's possible and make the changes work for them and their students.

So, here are a few thoughts about what ESSA means for people in schools and systems.

First, understand that ESSA sharply reduces Washington's say-so over things like accountability, school improvement, and teacher quality, just for starters. It retains NCLB's testing framework (reading and math in grades 3-8 and in high school, science once at each level of schooling) but also creates more flexibility for states to explore new assessment options.

Second, this means that a lot of power has migrated back to the states and districts. Exactly how this will shake out is still murky, but state officials will have substantial new opportunities to revisit old decisions, leave decisions to districts, or strike out in new directions. Now, they won't necessarily understand all of this, so good ideas risk getting lost amidst confusion and uncertainty. The upshot: don't let people brush you off with now-familiar claims that "Washington is making us do that." This excuse is going to be true a lot less often than it used to be, so be duly skeptical when you hear it.

Third, this means that a lot more is possible than used to be the case. It's time to reset expectations. In fact, some of the things that "had" to be done or "couldn't" be done may have been urban myths all along (for instance, budgeting rules for Title I schools are more flexible than most people think). But, in any event, it's time to understand that things have been reset. If someone gives you the stock "must" or "can't" line, it's worth asking where it says that and whether they're sure that things haven't changed under the new law.

Fourth, this all creates huge opportunities for teacher leaders, school leaders, and district staff to put their knowledge to work. The things newly up in the air include measures of school quality, teacher evaluation systems, school improvement strategies, the proper use of test scores, appropriate subgroup sizes, how to gauge "satisfactory" school performance, and much else. Educators will have useful insights and advice on many of these questions. The trick is to put them forward in concrete, actionable, and persuasive ways.

Fifth, this means it's a mistake for educators to just focus on "advocating" for favorite hobbyhorses. That's probably not going to be enough to alter familiar routines. Rather, see ESSA as an opportunity to put professional acumen to work, employing first-hand knowledge of the problems that some of the NCLB-inspired policies have yielded in schools and classrooms. This requires engaging with professional discipline as well as professional expertise, so that proposed solutions don't get mistaken for grumbling or lost amidst the noise. (If you're not sure of what I mean, I've synthesized the insights from hundreds of pretty successful school, system, and teacher leaders in The Cage-Busting Teacher and Cage-Busting Leadership.)

Sixth, none of this requires you to delve into the 1,000+ pages of the law. It's confusing, sprawling, and generally snooze-inducing. People working in schools and systems have better things to do than read federal legislation. What's helpful is to understand what has changed from NCLB and what the new law does and does not require. For this, you should be able to tap into resources by national teacher, principal, and superintendent groups—all of whom have pros who track this stuff. If they don't have anything that suits, don't be shy about reaching out to them and asking. One of their primary roles is to help educators across the nation understand what Washington does.

Finally, make it a point to ask all the enthusiastic policy wonks who fly out to conferences and for meetings to spend less time telling people who work in states, districts, and schools what we think you should do, and to spend more time helping those working in states, districts, and schools to understand what they can do. When in doubt, a good place to start is by asking, "What are two or three important things that we can do now that we couldn't do before? And what are a couple useful ways we might consider putting that freedom to work?"

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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