Dr. Walt Cooper
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In 2001, Congress voted by a huge margin to pass the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was originally touted as a bipartisan success and lauded for highlighting the achievement gap between white and minority and disadvantaged students, and the need for high standards and accountability measures. By design, NCLB also put the federal government firmly in control of how public schools in the United States measured student performance and directed states on specific interventions in the case of underperforming schools. While this landmark legislation was arguably undertaken with the best of intentions, it became more and more evident as the years progressed that, good intentions aside, the legislation was fraught with faulty policies and ineffective mechanisms.
The fact that NCLB fell far short of its mark, so much so that the law was rendered almost pointless as a result of “waivers” issued to most states in 2011, isn’t nearly as troubling as the fact that Congress exceeded its own imposed deadline to review and reauthorize the law by 9 years. Nonetheless, as 2015 ended, Congress passed a sweeping reform of NCLB that President Obama signed into law in mid-December. Now called the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), the previous levels of federal control over K-12 schools appear to be quickly fading.
Called “ the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century” by the Wall Street Journal, the ESSA is designed to give states significant flexibility and decision-making authority in a wide range of areas. The major shifts back toward local control include allowing states to identify their own accountability goals, decide what measures and priorities will be used to accredit schools, write their own testing opt-out laws, and design their own teacher evaluation protocols. And in an apparent response to national criticism of the US Department of Education's manipulation of the Common Core State Standards, the ESSA now prohibits the US Secretary of Education from mandating or encouraging states to pick a particular set of teaching standards.
While we still have much to learn about the new legislation and there is even more work ahead at both the state and local levels to translate the newly created flexibility into effective practices, (especially in regard to student assessment and school accountability) it is long overdue work that we eagerly welcome.