Plums and Lemonade: Making the Most of ESSA

On December 10, after many painful years of wrestling with the heavy-handed No Child Left Behind Act and state waivers that were often more prescriptive than the law itself, educators finally got a new federal law governing PK-12 education. Its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), promises to return power to the states, reduce accountability burdens, and broaden the scope of support for students with the greatest needs. I join my fellow educators around the country in celebrating these improvements.

Nonetheless, there are lemons lurking among the plums in the new ESSA. This law contains more concessions to reformist entrepreneurs and venture philanthropists than many of us would like. For example, one provision in Title II allows states to create charter-like “academies” for preparing teachers and principals for high-need schools—an idea that has been debated for several years and widely opposed by education organizations. Now that it is part of the law, however, we will do well to heed Maya Angelou’s advice: if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. So let’s celebrate the plums and then get busy making lemonade.

First, the plums: the proclamations of victory and sighs of relief emanating from teachers’ and principals’ organizations, school boards, state agencies, and others indicate the law’s significance to the education profession as a whole. We desperately needed a reauthorization that set aside the most damaging provisions of No Child Left Behind, and now we can better focus on serving all learners. As teacher educators, we can celebrate what the reauthorization means to our PK-12 colleagues and to students across the nation.

For educator preparation programs, Title II—the section of the law governing teacher quality—presents a number of options to address locally important issues. As disappointed as we are with the inclusion of the alternative-certification academies as one of those options, it could have been worse: states could have been required to create them. Instead, these academies are merely one of 21 permitted uses of teacher quality funds. (It is curious, though, that in a bill lauded for its determination to return authority to states and become less prescriptive, this is one highly prescriptive lemon.)

The law allows the new academies to be created in partnership with higher education. I am excited to see innovative educator preparation programs embrace the invitation to develop novel pathways with their local districts and other partners. Another option for states under Title II is to build teacher and school leader residency programs—a superb choice to build long-term capacity for the profession. Every principal and superintendent wants to hire well-prepared novice teachers who will stay in the profession, and tapping their knowledge of the local landscape of resources and particular needs will be critical.

Equally important to the success of new preparation pathways is upholding the standards of quality for novice teachers. Although ESSA declines to articulate even a minimum standard for beginning practice, the field’s knowledge base in this area is richer than ever, and we now have several performance assessments aligned with the standards to gauge candidates’ readiness to teach. Alternative routes into the classroom aren’t necessarily lemons; a viable pathway is one that meets local workforce needs by producing teachers who meet the performance threshold.

As we continue our work to implement more challenging learning objectives for students across the nation, we welcome the chance to experiment with the new latitude created in Title II and to take a fresh look at what we want to get done at home. Along with our colleagues in practice and allies in the community, we are eager to bring renewed energy in the states to meeting local workforce needs and advancing learning for all students.

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE