Goodbye NCLB, Hello ESSA.

As of December 10, 2015, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is no more and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 is now in effect. There is, of course, a lot of work and details and implementation issues that will have to be worked out in the coming years, but I for one, am breathing a a little sigh of relief. The dreaded AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and HQT (Highly Qualified Teacher) mandates are no longer going to restrain what schools and teachers should be doing to support student learning.

I can only speak from my own experience, but as a teacher who taught before and after the NCLB Act was made into law, I know how much damage I saw in the schools I taught at, as a result of NCLB. In fact, the research paper I wrote on for my doctorate program application was all about how NCLB had ruined teaching.  (I tried to find it so I could quote some things, but I believe it may have been “recycled” in my most recent move.) What I do know, again, from my own experience, was that teaching changed. I taught in Virginia, and teachers and schools became so focused on state tests and reaching the magic NCLB % passing rate for their students, and making AYP, that teaching became all about the tests. All our classroom tests became multiple choice so that students were use to that when it came to the state test. Teaching had to focus on only the topics covered on the test, so “extra” stuff was frowned about. Memorization of facts and skills was focused on – no more focus on understanding or problem solving – just on the skills needed to pass the test. No more hands-on learning – we needed to teach test taking strategies.

As a teacher who strives to make mathematics engaging, hands-on, and technology rich, you can imagine my struggle. NCLB is in fact a major reason I left teaching in the classroom to go to Key Curriculum, an inquiry-based mathematics/technology publishing company. I wasn’t able to teach mathematics the way I believed it should be taught due to the standardized testing constraints and constant pressure to meet the magical AYP numbers and student passing percentages. I believed I could have more of an impact on mathematics education through supporting inquiry-based learning and technology integration via teacher professional development.

When the Common Core State Standards came along, I jumped for joy, because I saw this as a step back to true teaching. Relevant, real-world, engaging learning focused on understanding and applying mathematics. But – NCLB and the standardized culture we are immersed in has made the CCSS a difficult implementation, and unfortunately, a political tool.  The passing of the ESSA is  exciting because hopefully it will allow education to focus on learning, understanding, and applying rather than testing.

I’ve been researching different articles about what the ESSA will in fact change, fund, and mandate, as that will be a crucial factor in how states implement the new law and how schools/teachers/students are assessed. Assessment is still an important component of education – without it, how can we ensure students are learning and improve the ways in which we help them learn. The difference between ESSA and NCLB is, I hope, that assessment will be more formative versus punitive. The states have a lot more power and control – which could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. It’s obviously too early to tell.

I would suggest you read more about the ESSA on your own. A good summary can be found here. This article does a good comparison of the two acts. NCTM wrote a nice article explaining their support and what some of the ESSA initiatives are, so read that here.  There is also a government site that details the ESSA, which you can find here. I would especially look at the fact sheets posted here. (I will admit, some of the provisions are a little concerning to me.)  Here are a couple that stick out for me as either interesting or concerning:

  1. The one-size-fits all measure for accountability (AYP) is repealed, and states, not the Federal Government, will have power over measuring student and school performance.
  2. There are 69 programs that will be eliminated, and instead, a Local Academic Flexible Grant will allow states & school districts to allocate resources in a way that addresses their needs.
  3. States will determine and create their own strategies to improve failing schools.
  4. All states are free to opt out of the requirements under any program in the bill.

Obviously, this is a very short list – the provisions are numerous and complicated. Much better for you to read and compare on your own. As I said, I am a little concerned at some of the things I am reading (i.e. states opting out of everything, lack of funding, elimination of some great programs, etc.). But, only time will tell and hopefully, after the struggle we have had under NCLB, there can be a more positive approach to teaching and assessing students.