ESSA: Hardly Perfect, But Progress to Build On

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Many people in the teaching profession are applauding the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Barack Obama signed into federal law in December. ESSA is not perfect, but what law or federal mandate is? The purpose of ESSA, in short, is to modernize and fix the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which turned into a broken system that, for more than a decade, did far more harm than good.

ESSA, to be sure, addresses some of NCLB’s biggest problems. The good news is that it allows for greater flexibility and opportunities for educator preparation programs to be creative and innovative in impacting PK-12 student learning with local districts and other partners. It also requires states to adopt challenging academic content standards and entrance requirements for credit-bearing course work in the state’s system of public higher education. These changes, among others, are long overdue.

ESSA also allows for the establishment of teacher preparation academies, which, in essence, support nontraditional, nonuniversity programs. ESSA stipulates that individuals who complete their training in these academies will receive a certificate equivalent to a master’s degree in education for purposes of hiring, compensation, and promotion. This development would water down progress toward ensuring qualified, competent teachers in the classroom. While I support some alternate pathways to give candidates more options, this is a direct overstepping of boundaries by the federal government. The federal government should not be in the business of dictating what counts as a master’s degree in individual states and should not stipulate what pathways are acceptable in a state or the teaching profession in general. More problematic is the fact that teacher academies as currently described in ESSA are not likely to prepare qualified teachers for high-poverty schools—which would result in lowering the quality of education provided to our most vulnerable populations.

Thus, some of ESSA’s provisions do not align with its stated desire to “[protect] low-income families and students of color from being taught at disproportionate rates by ineffective, inexperienced, and out-of-field teachers.” Reducing standards for teachers prepared through the academies will widen inequities rather than reduce them, as high-poverty schools are likely to be stuck with teachers who are less qualified and prepared to teach.

Even worse, ESSA champions the charter industry, which has been nothing short of a failure in many states, especially mine (Ohio). The law requires that 12.5% of the federal charter budget be spent on facilities assistance, which will only fatten the pocket books of for-profit management companies. In fact, some Ohio charters pay as much as $4,500 per student per year in rent. Why is the federal government hell-bent on funneling money into a broken, fraudulent system that, in the end, only hurts our public-school children in the process?

Overall, ESSA does give individual states and school districts far more flexibility and autonomy than NCLB ever did. For that alone, the new legislation should be lauded. Still, ESSA’s support for teacher academies threatens to delegitimize the profession, while its charter-friendly stance further privatizes education that should remain public.

Ultimately, ESSA is not perfect, but it is progress—progress that we should seek to build on.

Tags: ,

Renée A. Middleton

Ohio University