This week Congress voted to pass, and President Obama signed, the most far-reaching federal education bill in almost fifteen years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorizes the Elementary and Second Education Act 50 years after its enactment and represents a genuine compromise within a deeply divided Congress. As with all compromises, it is far from perfect, but it has the potential to help teachers and their allies meaningfully improve on the current state of affairs.
Several provisions of the legislation have the potential to help improve the conditions for literacy education for all learners:
- ESSA authorizes the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) program that NCTE worked with our allies in Congress to develop. It provides dedicated funding for comprehensive literacy education across all grade levels and subject areas.
- ESSA explicitly allows for investment of funds in several types of professional learning and collaboration activities that are strongly aligned with the collective inquiry approach to capacity building to strengthen literacy learning.
- ESSA includes a more progressive definition of professional development than is found in any previous federal law. It also aligns with the collective capacity-building vision to which NCTE is committed.
There are also elements of the legislation that are likely to be counterproductive:
- Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to adopt academic standards, mandates yearly testing, and requires the results to be taken into account in states’ accountability systems. However, it gives states considerably more flexibility in the design and implementation of these systems, allowing for inclusion of multiple measures, and significantly reduces the Secretary of Education’s authority to influence states’ decisions.
- It authorizes the creation of “teacher preparation academies,” which would allow individuals to be certified to teach without completing an accredited educator preparation program and requires states accepting funds for this purpose to allow academy students to serve as teachers of record prior to completion of their training.
- It includes increased funding to incentivize states to develop workforce management systems that include performance pay tied to student test scores.
ESSA authorizes programs, but it does not fund them. In order for them to be implemented, Congress must appropriate funding. So, one crucial next challenge is to urge Congress to fund at high levels the programs that serve the literacy learning of our students and to convince them to minimize funding for those that do not.