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Can U.S. Students Claim ESSA as a Victory?

With the ink still drying on this landmark educational bill, I'm thinking about the original intent of the 1965 education bill, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA was signed into law as part of President Johnson's "War on Poverty" to provide equity in education. Burned by No Child Left Behind and its unintended consequences many decades later, I have high hopes for the promise of this new bill. As Democrats and Republicans alike race to claim victory on ESSA for their parties, now more than ever it is crucial to shift the conversation back to the students the law was designed to help: those from low-income areas whose schools have traditionally lacked access to equitable education resources. In that respect, can the students of this nation claim victory? 

Rich Johnson

By giving states the power to determine their own accountability system, including through the use of alternate indicators of student achievement and engagement, school climate, and advanced coursework, ESSA can remove the "high stakes" from high-stakes testing. For too long, the annual large-scale assessments in math and reading have been used solely to determine decisions about children's promotions, the effectiveness of their teachers, and the ratings of their schools. Under ESSA, states and districts can determine what a quality school looks like and how to measure that quality. This should allow teachers to focus on more holistic approaches to teaching and assessment.

With accountability centered at the state level, parents should expect swifter and better-tailored action to schools in need. Under NCLB, specific methods and systems prescribed by federal oversight for improving schools did not always work in all places. I cannot imagine that the issues faced by struggling schools in rural Nebraska would mirror the challenges I face every day in my classroom in the Bronx. State accountability is a good thing, because the more localized the assistance and recommendations, the more likely the recommendations will be based on the specific data, demographics, and deficiencies of that school. 

Though state control has historically led to under-performing schools being hidden in the data, ESSA's new mandate to disaggregate data by smaller sub-groups will ensure that schools and groups in need are recognized. It is true that in the past, states have ignored small pockets of need and focused on the bigger picture to claim success in education. The new subgroups include low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners, as well as students with migrant, homeless, and foster-care status. These students are ultimately the very groups the original bill set out to help.

Despite this opportunity for greater equity under ESSA, there are no absolutes. What the law says and how it looks in practice will be two different things. This bill was restructured and passed, in part, due to the efforts of teachers, administrators, and parents demanding that their voices be heard. And the only way it will be implemented properly is if we continue to advocate for our children.

Rich Johnson is a 5th grade special education teacher at PS105 in the Bronx, an after-school chess coach, and a member of Educators 4 Excellence - New York.

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