In December 2015, when President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 — congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle breathed a deep sigh of relief. Not only had NCLB grown increasingly unpopular among the American public, but it was long overdue for an update. Since 2007, when NCLB was supposed to have been reauthorized, the House and Senate had been stuck in neutral, making no progress toward a revision of the law.
It was Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate education committee, and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray who finally broke the stalemate by brokering a compromise: If Congress couldn’t agree on a bold new vision for federal education policy, then it could at least address the existing policy’s most glaring flaws (e.g., too much testing of students, too much blaming of teachers, and too much intrusion into local decision making). ESSA diminished the federal government’s role in school reform, and it gave much more authority to states to implement the law, measure their students’ progress, intervene in their lowest performing schools, and evaluate the work of their teachers and principals.
When it comes to its underlying logic and design, though, ESSA is more or less the same as its predecessor. Like NCLB, it requires states to adopt challenging academic standards, test students annually, report out the test results for all students and by major subgroups, set state targets for improving achievement, and hold teachers and schools accountable for the results.
In that case, should Americans be optimistic that ESSA will enable every student to succeed, as its title suggests?
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Jack Jennings (firstname.lastname@example.org; @jackjenningsdc) is the former president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, now housed at George Washington University. From 1967 to 1994, he served as subcommittee staff director and then as a general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor. He is the author, most recently, of Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2015).