ESSA: Time for States to Seize the Initiative

Education Week American Education News Site of RecordA recent article from Education Week, by Marc Tucker, criticizes the way states are handling the implementation of ESSA. The hottest item at the recent meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers was ESSA, the new federal education legislation that replaced No Child Left Behind, but the big question on the minds of most state chiefs was what they needed to do to comply with the new legislation rather than how they could use their new power to truly transform education systems.

Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander have been trying hard to send a message to the states.  Like many others, they saw the federal government, empowered by No Child Left Behind, with Race to the Top layered on afterwards, as having greatly exceeded its mandate, as having become a national school board that no one wanted.  ESSA was designed as a giant slap on the wrist for the U.S. Department of Education.  Taking back much of the authority that the Bush and Obama administrations had grabbed, Senators Alexander and Murray handed it back to the states.

But that is not the end of the story. The Congress was deeply dissatisfied with the way the states had absorbed a great deal of federal money for disadvantaged students over the years, with very little to show for it.

What the two senators keep saying is that the return of authority to the states is provisional, not necessarily permanent.  They plan to see what the states end up doing with their new-found freedom.  If they go back to their old ways, if they fail to redesign their systems to produce much more learning for all children, but most especially for those disadvantaged students for whom the federal funds are intended, then the Congress will consider what its next step will be, because it does not intend to go back to the status quo.

This is not about compliance.  It is about imagination, bold plans and determined implementation. This is a golden opportunity for the states that choose to grab it. Students in close to 30 countries now outperform American students.  All but a handful of the leading industrial countries do better by their low-income and minority students than we do.  High school students in many countries are graduating with two to three years more education than our high school students.

The question a state needs to start with is not “What should our education policies be?” but rather, “What do we want for our people?”  “What kind of future do we want for our kids and their kids?” “What kind of economy do we want?”  “Do we want to compete on the cost of labor, which will make many people poor? Or on the quality of the goods and services we produce which will make our people rich?” That is a conversation in which the governor, the legislature, educators, the business community, everyday citizens, the press, the higher education system and others have to be deeply involved if it is going to work.

What ESSA is asking the states for is not compliance.  It is asking for a plan to build the kind of education system that can turn out the most highly and deeply educated people on the planet, in great numbers, at a price the public can afford.  That will require a redesigned system staffed by highly educated and well-trained, well-compensated and well-supported teachers who are treated as professionals.

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