Congress has passed the first major federal overhaul of elementary and secondary education in nearly 15 years.
The president signed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) on December 10, quashing most of the provisions of President George W. Bush’s highly controversial—and for American Indian students mostly unproductive—No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
The law will largely return control of K-12 school accountability and improvement to states and local school districts while retaining NCLB’s reading and math testing mandates and requirements to fix the lowest performing schools. Federal sanctions for failing schools will be eliminated, as will be the provision that every child be proficient in math and reading by 2014—a component of NCLB that turned out to be unrealistic and led the U.S. Department of Education to begin issuing waivers to NCLB requirements in 2011.
On December 1, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Congress that while ESSA was better than NCLB, concerns remained. “The Every Student Succeeds Act also cedes considerable responsibility to states. The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of underserved students.” The 200-member organization asked Congress “to work with us in the implementation phase to make sure the process brings students, parents and communities to the table and is consistent with the stated purpose of this law and its history.”
A reduction in federal involvement in education could mean double jeopardy for AI/AN and other minority children since it eliminates many of the checks and balances intended to improve educational opportunities for them. Even with those conditions in place, the achievement gap for AI/AN students has been significant and persistent.
National Indian Education Association Executive Director Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee Nation, says the organization is concerned about the limited role of federal oversight, but nonetheless really excited about the Every Student Succeeds law. “This is a huge step for Native education. It is the first time states and local education agencies [LEAs] will have to talk to tribes. These are first steps toward self-determination over public education on our lands,” she says. She also notes that the law makes more tribes eligible to run and operate federal programs in their schools.
Schools will still be required to administer standardized reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But states will be able to determine what standards to measure and what tests to use. The Secretary of Education will not be able to force or encourage states to pick specific standards such as Common Core or assessments.
States will also determine what, if any, sanctions to impose on schools that do not measure up to the state’s standards, but they will have to do something to improve low-performing schools, which are defined as those in which two-thirds of the students fail to graduate high school, schools in the bottom 5 percent and those in which minority students or students in other subgroups are consistently struggling.
States and individual schools will still be required to report test scores for racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and English language learners. But states will be able to devise their own opt-out rules for testing, so long as 95 percent of students and 95 percent of any subgroup participate.
States may take into consideration factors other than test scores when evaluating schools. These factors could include school climate, teacher engagement, access to advanced placement courses and/or post-secondary (college and career) readiness.
The federal government will have no role in teacher evaluations.
States will have more flexibility to implement innovative programs such as high school/college dual and concurrent enrollment.
The legislation requires that local educational agencies (LEAs) with an AI/AN enrollment of not less than 50 percent (or 25 percent, depending which federal grants are involved) engage in and document consultation with American Indian tribes and tribal organizations.
It includes a statement of policy regarding decrepit school buildings: “It is further the policy of the United States to ensure that Indian children do not attend school in buildings that are dilapidated or deteriorating, which may negatively affect the academic success of such children.” It also contains statements about the importance of culturally-appropriate education (including language, history and traditions) for AI/AN students and the need to have teachers competent to teach these subjects.
The legislation combines about 50 education funding programs into one large block grant and eliminates School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top funding, but provides support for charter schools and early childhood education.
The National Governors Association (which crafted Common Core Standards), National Education Association (a 3-million member union), Council of Chief State School Officers and the School Superintendent's Association (which opposed NCLB) have all given their support to the compromise legislation.