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Will ESSA Offer New Leadership Opportunities for Educators?

By Maddie Fennell

No Child Left Behind was the official name for the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act but it had many nicknames among educators. No Teacher Left Standing, No Lawyer Left Unemployed, No Child's Behind Left....all were expressions of the frustration that educators had with the arbitrary and unrealistic expectations that - when unmet - brought harsh consequences to schools.

In their attempt to help states deal with the fact that Congress wouldn't fix a broken law, the U.S. Department of Education developed ESEA waivers. While there were multiple components to the waivers, what really laid accountability on the shoulders of teachers were the new rules around teacher evaluations. In many states, student tests scores were tied directly to a teacher's evaluation, often by arbitrary percentages not rooted in research. The harsh consequences of NCLB were now pushed to the teacher level and accountability for an entire system was placed upon those with the least amount of autonomy.

So how will the Every Student Succeeds Act be different?

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme!" is a caution for us; we need to learn where we went wrong with NCLB and waivers. One key error was the development of well-intentioned policies without the benefit of practicing educators at the decision making table. National polling shows that only 2% of teachers feel their voices are heard at the national level. My colleague Justin Minkel calls it the "implementation gap" - the gulf between a policy's intended impact and its actual impact once it rolls out with real kids in real classrooms. When you don't have practicing educators assisting with the decision making, that gap is inevitable.

ESSA provides new access points to teachers in three ways:

1) Congress will be keeping an eye on implementation and talking to those on the ground.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and Patty Murray, D-Wash, primary architects of ESSA, have stated that they would be calling for at least three congressional oversight hearings on the implementation of ESSA. An array of education stakeholders - including teachers - will be called to share how the "implementation gap" is being addressed.

The U.S. Department of Education, which will have responsibility for regulating and policy making around ESSA (albeit a decreased role due to provisions in the law), has a deeper understanding of and appreciation for teacher leadership and teacher voice than it has in the recent past. There has been a significant increase in the involvement of teacher voices within the Department and a renewed commitment to bridging the gap between practitioners and policy makers. Teach to Lead, intended to keep great teachers in the classroom while allowing them the opportunity to lead, has created a greater respect for the work that educators are capable of doing when given the right support. Expanded educator voice inside of ED will make policies smarter and implementation smoother.

2) ESSA is about giving control back to the states.

While the percentage of teachers who feel their voices are heard at the state level isn't much better than the national - states are at 5% - it is generally easier to understand and leverage access points to policy makers closer to home. There are also several groups out there - unions, Teach Plus, Hope Street Group, VIVA - who have a good record of activating educator voices at the state level. They, and others, will need to help teachers develop stronger relationship with state policy makers and to ensure that accountability is shared by every education stakeholder, not just teachers.

3) Teacher leadership is actually supported in ESSA.

For the first time, there are numerous references made to teacher leadership in ESEA, offering an opportunity for school systems to channel federal funds into teacher leadership and to think about staffing schools differently:

  • P. 319, lines 17-21: "providing training and support for teacher leaders and principals or other school leaders who are recruited as part of instructional leadership teams."
  • P. 333, lines 11-17: "A description of the local educational agency's systems of professional growth and improvement, such as induction for teachers, principals, or other school leaders and opportunities for building the capacity of teachers and opportunities to develop meaningful teacher leadership."
  • P. 350, lines 15-18: "successful fulfillment of additional responsibilities or job functions, such as teacher leadership roles"
  • P. 356-357, lines 21-25 and 1-3: "authority to make staffing decisions that meet the needs of the school, such as building an instructional leadership team that includes teacher leaders or offering opportunities for teams or pairs of effective teachers or candidates to teach or to start teaching in high-need schools together."

As educators we need to seize these opportunities. Reach out to your representatives, offer your assistance and ask them how you can be involved. Learn more about teachers who have led change; The Cage Busting Teacher by Rick Hess is a good source and has a great listing of fellowships in the appendix. Learn more about Teach to Lead and how it can support transforming your ideas into action.

For many educators, NCLB was an attack on our schools and our profession.  I recently heard Peter McWalters, lifelong educator and former Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island exclaim, "You don't go to war with your workforce!" 

ESSA offers us a truce and an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.  Let ESSA be the time when we got it right and valued the practitioner voice in the development as well as the implementation of policy.

Maddie Fennell, Nebraska 2007 Teacher of the Year, is the Secretary for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is in her 26th year as a teacher in the Omaha Public Schools; this year she is serving as a Teacher Leader in Residence at the U.S. Department of Education. 

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