by Lindsey Jackson
In December 2015, President Obama signed into law an act that replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That law was the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is not only a replacement of NCLB but a continuation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act put into place by President Lyndon B. Johnson back in the 1960s as part of his “War on Poverty.” The goal of these laws was and continues to be to provide an appropriate and beneficial education to every child from every background, especially those who are often left on the fringes. The laws seek to integrate these children more successfully and hold schools accountable for the support and success of high-need groups, such as those from low socioeconomic classes, migrants, and English learners (ELs).
The problem with No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2002, was not really in the idea. As the name suggested, the goal was to help every child catch up. But it did so in ways that were unrealistic and unsuccessful: through long lists of rules, unfunded mandates, impossible deadlines, and heavy doses of standardized testing that went against research-backed testing principles. These rules, constantly evolving, not only were a destructive blow to many school districts around the country but also led to national distrust of the public education system and the qualifications of the educators themselves.
This is where ESSA comes in. One of the advantages of ESSA is that it is a bipartisan law, and it is one of a few examples that show what our nation is capable of when political parties actually work together to create something beneficial for the younger generation. ESSA offers specific and measurable methods of accountability as well as cross tabulation, which means, for example, that we could check on not only the progress of special education students and of ELs but also the progress specifically of ELs in special education—or any other specific group of students we might want to check on.
Though the law is certainly not a fix-all, it does have certain positive implications for ELs. The accountability factor mentioned above is huge. Previous versions of the law, especially NCLB, placed far too much of an emphasis on standardized testing which left ELs marginalized and overrepresented in lower score percentiles. The broadening of accountability means that ELs will have a chance to be represented more fairly according to their actual abilities in a range of areas, rather than having their performance indicated by a couple overall scores. Additionally, ESSA changes terminology, referring to our students as “English learners” rather than “limited English proficient,” thus representing a shift from a language deficit mindset to one that recognizes and validates the fact that English learners are multilingual speakers with unique and valuable skill sets.
The effects of ESSA are not in full swing yet, but they have begun and are worth getting excited about. Of course, quirks and flaws will be sure to show themselves as time passes. One of these potential flaws was recently brought to light by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which discussed in an advocacy letter the concern that though ESSA calls for parent and family engagement, there are no measures of accountability for said engagement. As such, there is the concern that parents and families of the student groups that ESSA actively seeks to engage might inadvertently still get left out. Thus, the letter calls for measurable methods of accountability to ensure the inclusion of at-risk groups. No measures have been taken yet to respond to this call to action, but the fact that this gap has been caught early is a good sign.
The paperwork for ESSA stretches over a thousand pages. It is difficult as a non-legislator to process every change that will occur in the education system. But for a fairly thorough look at it, check out the following sources:
- Why ESSA Is Necessary – The document explains the holes in NCLB and what ESSA does to attempt to fill those holes.
- ESSA: Implications for ELs – This blog identifies not only what ESSA says about ELs but also what it doesn’t say, which is just as important
- ESSA: Video Summary – The video is a quick but informative session covering FAQs about ESSA
- Advocacy Letter – Parent and Family Engagement – This is the aforementioned letter suggesting ESSA have standards of higher engagement between educators and families
- ESSA Transparency Requirements – The website explains the key shifts in accountability that were so lacking in NCLB but are now present in ESSA.
Lindsey Jackson earned a Master’s in English-TESOL from Missouri State University in May 2016. She has an undergraduate degree in English Education from Evangel University and currently teaches English composition for non-native English speakers at Missouri State.