Progress Toward Educational Equity: Can ESSA Move us Forward?

The Promise and Potential of “Woke” HBCUs

Linda Darling-Hammond //

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, reauthorizing our major federal education law.  Previously called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the law had established important goals of closing the achievement gap between minority and majority students, requiring annual reporting of test scores for students by race, income, language, and special education status. This greater transparency, tied to expectations for progress, created important new policy ambitions for achieving equity that had not been on the table before.


How No Child Left Behind Left Equity Behind

However, the law also introduced a set of unmanageable accountability strategies that punished the schools serving the neediest students, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and, ultimately, to the bipartisan consensus to leave it behind.   And, despite its noble intentions,

NCLB did not explicitly address the opportunity gap and widespread resource inequities that are in fact responsible for leaving many children behind:  It did not reduce the dramatically unequal funding across states and among districts that have led to a 10 to 1 ratio between the spending of our wealthiest districts and that of our poorest because of funding systems still rooted in local property taxes. Furthermore, its already weak provisions for within-district comparability of spending and equity in the provision of teacher quality were weakened still further over the 15 years of its life.

Nor did the law focus on providing rich learning opportunities aimed at the skills demanded in the 21st century for those long denied the promise of educational equity.  In fact, it may have unintentionally undermined those opportunities, as states met the demand for more frequent testing in  part by abandoning their open-ended assessments of research, writing, mathematical problem solving, and science inquiry in favor of very low-level multiple choice tests that were found to narrow the curriculum where schools taught to them – which was especially true in schools serving low-income children of color.

Where children spent much of the school year drilling on test prep for multiple-choice questions focused on picking one answer out of five – rather than learning to be the scientists, engineers, authors, and inventors of the future — they were not prepared for their future.  The true test of equity, I would argue, is whether we are able to provide the kind of education needed for high levels of success in a fast-paced, knowledge based economy to all of our children – not just to a privileged few.

Our nation’s  historical pattern of passing policies that exacerbate the low expectations of traditionally disadvantaged students is, unfortunately, just as much an American tradition as is the belief that providing high-quality free public education will help level the playing field.

So what are the prospects for greater equity under the new law?


Can the Every Student Succeeds Act Help Level the Playing Field?

The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) not only moved through a partisan and often dysfunctional Congress – a great feat in itself – but it could leverage some unexpected gains on the equity agenda for students. This depends on how the US Department of Education regulates the law and how states and districts implement it – in particular, how they use some surprising equity-enhancing levers embedded in the new law.

Just as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 institutionalized the federal commitment to improving schooling for disadvantaged students, ESSA has the potential to make the education of these young people – students of color, low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and foster and homeless youth – a top priority for states, districts, and schools in the 21st Century.

There are at least four ways that ESSA could strongly advance equity, if it is thoughtfully regulated and implemented.

First is the set of expectations in Title I that states will design standards, curriculum, and assessments that develop and measure higher order thinking skills for all of their children, and the resources in Title II for professional learning that could make these rights real.  Just as W.E.B. Dubois argued for a rich, liberal education for black children, when most wanted to relegate them to training for menial labor; so must we insist on a 21st century curriculum focused on critical thinking and problem-solving for the children whom ESEA is intended to serve, rather than a rote-oriented education that prepares them for the factory jobs of the past.  This means teachers and school leaders need to learn to provide that kind of education, and assessments need to develop and measure it – in the cause of ongoing improvement, rather than punishment. ESSA raises the possibility that the nation will take up this work.

Second is the fact that ESSA insists that states use multiple measures to evaluate student and school progress — both overall and for subgroups of students.  Among these could be measures not only of student outcomes—such as test score gains, English learner progress, and graduation rates – but also measures of students’ opportunities to learn:  How many receive and complete a college preparatory sequence, for example, or a high-quality career technical pathway?  Do their schools have well-qualified and effective teachers? Do survey results suggest that they have a safe, supportive school climate that offers high-quality  learning opportunities to students and teachers?  Have schools reduced high and disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates that reduce student success?

These measures can shine a light on inequities as well as poor learning conditions and help diagnose the steps that must be taken to close the opportunity gap.   Even more, measuring students’ opportunities to learn encourages schools and communities to tend to the whole learning environment.  Looking at indicators of school quality or student success and allowing for more robust assessments that tap into higher order thinking skills can provide useful incentives for improvement while also addressing inequalities.

ESSA has the potential to push education systems towards greater opportunities for equity in other ways.  Requiring states to describe how students from low-income families and students of color are not served at disproportionate rates by inexperienced, ineffective or out-of-field teachers sets a bar to opening access to effective teaching.  This should stimulate policies to equalize salaries and working conditions across schools, to offer service scholarships to recruit teachers to high-need fields and locations, and to support mentoring and other supports that enhance teacher retention and effectiveness.

Similarly, the law’s provision that enables investments in early childhood education linked to the transition to k-12 education is another way states and districts can address some of the root causes of inequities among students growing up with different early learning opportunities.

Third, for the first time, there are a number of features of the law that directly address the resource gaps among our schools.   States must report schools’ actual per-pupil spending on report cards, driving plans for fair distributions of state and local dollars.  The “supplement, not supplant” requirement requires that schools receiving Title I funds get at least as much state and local funding as schools that do not receive funding from Title I. ESSA also establishes a new weighted, student-based budgeting pilot.  This new opportunity would reward up to 50 districts for innovative funding that is based on student needs – offering more resources for students who are low-income, English learners, foster care children, or otherwise in need.   New authorization for a Student Support and Academic Enrichment program can target federal resources to offer well-rounded education experiences to students, promote health and safety in their communities, create community schools, and support other local priorities that better serve disadvantaged students.

Finally, the law calls on states to use evidence-based strategies for improving schools that are struggling.  If this requirement is defined thoughtfully and treated seriously, it could lead to significantly wiser investments in high-need schools and concomitantly better outcomes.   These can include [Cuts off here – there appears to be something missing]


Community Engagement is Key

As states, districts, and schools prepare to transition from an NCLB-era of prescriptive federal oversight to one where increased flexibility will determine the goals, targets, interventions, and supports, it is imperative that communities and civil rights advocates are informed and engaged. Young people and their families, neighborhood social service groups, local educators and employers, churches and other community stakeholder organizations must serve as safeguards for ensuring education systems at large are accountable for providing high-quality, educational opportunities that prepare all students for the 21st century.  It is here that education can truly become the great equalizer.

If federal and state officials approach the new ESSA through an equity lens – and if communities and stakeholder are informed and engaged – we could make serious progress toward the values of fairness and equity we espouse as a nation, but have had so much trouble realizing.

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