ESEA Reauthorization Wins Mixed Praise

On December 10, President Obama signed into law the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—now titled the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The long-overdue reauthorization is being heralded as the end of the heavy-handed No Child Left Behind era, returning much of the authority to states and local agencies to oversee PK-12 education. But like any law of such great scope, this one has plenty of contentious content, and education organizations are offering decidedly mixed reviews.

In its statement on the passage of ESSA, the Coalition for Teaching Quality (of which AACTE is a founding member) said, “While the Coalition appreciates ESSA’s efforts to strengthen the capacity of states and districts to improve teacher quality, the bill unfortunately reflects a significant step back for many of our nation’s neediest students by eliminating a meaningful minimum entry standard for teachers and the need for states and districts to correct ongoing inequities in access to high-quality teachers.”

This mixed praise was a common theme from many organizations that were dissatisfied with certain provisions in the bill. For PK-12 organizations, the rewrite is a “victory” and “the reset we’ve been fighting for.” Some offered more conditional support, while others focused chiefly on criticism, as noted in this Washington Post article saying the rewrite has “problems of its own.” See the following selected statements:

AACTE’s own statement echoed the conditional praise, taking issue in particular with certain problematic components of Title II:

AACTE Commends Congress on ESEA Reauthorization, Urges Responsible Implementation

(December 9, 2015, Washington, D.C.) – Today, Congress completed its long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bipartisan legislation, titled the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), now awaits the president’s signature. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) applauds the leadership of Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) in the U.S. Senate and Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) in the U.S. House of Representatives for bringing the bill to closure.

Overall, AACTE supports ESSA for its improvements over existing policy and for returning more power to the states to oversee local PK-12 education. However, certain provisions in the bill could threaten efforts to provide all students equitable access to high-quality teachers and principals. AACTE believes that all students should be taught by a profession-ready teacher who has completed preparation, demonstrated content knowledge and effectiveness, and achieved full state certification or licensure. AACTE members stand ready to assist their states in supporting well-researched, evidence-based approaches to meeting this goal—and steering clear of policies that would undermine it.

Of particular concern in Title II of ESSA is the inclusion of H.R. 848, the Great Teaching and Leading for Great Schools Act (the GREAT Act), which permits states to authorize new teacher, principal and school leader academies. Such academies would award certificates that could be treated as equivalent to a master’s degree, effectively bringing the government into the function of academic credentialing.

Yet the academies would not have to meet the same requirements as traditional higher education providers. Higher education has long been held to state standards for key aspects of educator preparation, including academic credentials of faculty, physical infrastructure, number of required course credits, course work previously completed by candidates, the process of obtaining accreditation and admissions criteria. The new academies are exempt from such restrictions.

Holding academies to a lower set of standards will undermine the nation’s goal of ensuring all students have a profession-ready teacher, especially as the bill requires states to allow teacher candidates to serve as teachers of record before completing their preparation and receiving full certification. AACTE and its members will continue to advocate in the states for the necessity of having a fully prepared, certified or licensed teacher in each classroom.

Beyond the provisions of the GREAT Act, ESSA includes other troubling opportunities for states to expand alternative routes to certification and licensure for high-need fields such as special education and the STEM disciplines—again without attention to standards for such programs.

Furthermore, ESSA does not include minimum entry standards for the teaching profession, leaving this determination up to each state. With multiple provisions in the bill encouraging expansion of alternate routes to the classroom and the use of teachers-in-training as teachers of record, ESSA tempts states to lower standards for the profession, which would have an adverse impact on the students who are most in need of highly skilled, well-prepared teachers. AACTE looks forward to working through its state chapters and membership across the nation to help states execute the provisions of ESSA responsibly.

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Zachary VanHouten

Manager of Programs and Advocacy, AACTE