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Congress Scraps No Child Left Behind: Meet ESSA

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign stop, Thursday, April 7, 2016, at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

WASHINGTON – President Obama has signed legislation that supplants the controversial and unpopular No Child Left Behind law, thus returning authority to the individual states to determine education policy.

In signing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Obama said the new rule will reduce unnecessary standardized tests, reduce federal mandates imposed on local schools and provide more children with access to high-quality preschool programs.

While the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — proposed by former President George W. Bush and enacted in 2002 – were worthwhile, Obama said, the law fell short in practice.

“It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see,” Obama said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said ESSA “offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions while also ensuring that students are making progress.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who helped mold the legislation with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the measure “moves decisions about whether schools and teachers and students are succeeding or failing out of Washington, D.C., and back to states and communities and classroom teachers where those decisions belong.”

“Today we are unleashing a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement — one that recognizes that the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C,” Alexander said. “We have reversed the trend toward a national school board, repealed the federal Common Core mandate, and enacted what the Wall Street Journal called ‘the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter century.’”

The new law, he said, affects 50 million children and 3.4 million teachers in 100,000 public schools across this country, providing “something they’ve been eagerly awaiting.”

Murray said ESSA provides “strong federal guardrails to ensure all students have access to a quality education, reduces reliance on high-stakes testing, makes strong investments to improve and expand access to preschool for our youngest learners, and so much more.”

The new law, she said, will “help more students get the chance to learn, grow and thrive in the classroom and beyond.”

No Child Left Behind, the subject of wide criticism, expanded the federal government’s involvement in education, creating a system that measured schools based on reading and math test scores and requiring schools to improve student scores on a yearly basis or face financial penalties.

Critics maintain the system led to a culture of over-testing in the schools.

That law, Alexander and others said, transformed the U.S. Department of Education into “a national school board,” providing waivers to more than 80,000 schools in 42 states seeking to escape the law, forcing governors to request “mother, may I?” to institute plans to evaluate teachers or assist low-performing schools.

NCLB also created a Common Core mandate – a set of national standards for English and math unveiled in 2010 that students were expected to meet and empowered the federal government to determine whether schools, teachers and students were succeeding or failing.

ESSA erases all that. The states are now expected to establish their own standards for determining school quality, permitting local education officials to use other factors in the status of their schools.

States will still be required to administer a regimen of annual tests intended to measure math and reading skills in grades three through eight, and once more in high school. Districts must then issue a public report documenting the outcomes, broken down according to race, income, ethnicity and disability.

Then states will have to decide what to do about those schools with low test scores, achievement gaps between groups of students and situations in which fewer than two-thirds of students are graduating on time. States are further expected to establish formulas for weighing test scores and evaluating teachers. Goals and timelines for academic progress must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said the new approach to K-12 education “will help every child in every school receive an excellent education.”

“Classrooms will no longer be micromanaged by the U.S. Department of Education,” Kline said. “Instead, parents, teachers and state and local education leaders will regain control of their schools and children will have a better shot at receiving a great education. This important achievement was possible because both sides agreed the status quo had to go and we had to find common ground.”

“With numerous challenges facing the country, it’s time to build on this success. We have more work to do and more opportunities to deliver real results for the American people.”

During a bill signing ceremony, Obama noted that ESSA represents a rare example of successful bipartisan legislating emanating from a severely divided Congress that often devolves into party-line votes. The bill also attracted the support of most education stakeholders, including both national teachers unions, reform groups and school parent organizations.

Reflecting, perhaps, the widespread dissatisfaction with NCLB, ESSA was the first piece of federal legislation​​ endorsed by the National Governors Association in almost 20 years.

No Child Left Behind was long overdue for an update at any rate. The original bill actually expired in 2007. It served as an update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.