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Accountability and the ESEA reauthorization deal: Your cheat sheet

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The newest proposed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act—is almost over the congressional finish line, with votes in both chambers of Congress imminent.

So how would accountability work under the ESSA, if approved? And how does it compare to the No Child Left Behind Act, Classic Edition, and the Obama administration's waivers?

Your cheat sheet here. Top-line stuff on accountability first, then some early reaction. Scroll down further if you want the nitty-gritty details on accountability.


And scroll down even further if you want more details on other aspects of the deal (an update of past Politics K-12 cheat sheets, including some new information on which programs made it into the agreement and which are on the chopping block, thanks to this helpful fact sheet from the Committee for Education Funding).

The top-line stuff: The ESSA is in many ways a U-turn from the current, much-maligned version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

• States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different subgroups of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And although tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students' opportunity to learn, like school climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

And, in a big switch from the waivers, there would be no role for the feds whatsoever in teacher evaluation.

• States and districts will have to use locally developed, evidence-based interventions though, in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate. States must also flag for districts schools where subgroup students are chronically struggling. The School Improvement Grant program is gone, but there are resources in the bill that states can use for turnarounds.

The deal goes further on accountability than either the House- or Senate-passed legislation. And, in a win for civil rights groups, it appears there are no more so-called supersubgroups. That's a statistical technique in the waivers that allowed states to combine different categories of students for accountability purposes.

There are definitely some "guardrails" as one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), would say. (More on just what those are below.) But the education secretary's authority is also very limited, especially when it comes to interfering with state decision-making on testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more.

So there's some real ambiguity here. That will be something to watch going forward.

It's still unclear just how the accountability or "guardrails" provisions of the bill vs. limits on secretarial authority will play out in regulation, implementation, and any federal monitoring. But it's possible that lawyers and lobbyists may have walked away as big winners here. (Even Democratic and Republican aides see certain aspects of the bill differently.)

Put another way, there are definitely provisions in this deal that state and district leaders and civil rights advocates can cite to show that states and schools will have to continue to ensure equity. But it will be hard for the U.S. Department of Education to implement those provisions with a very heavy hand, without at least the threat of lawsuits. So what happens from here will be largely up to states. (More on the potential regulatory fights, and lawsuits, ahead in this story from Friday.)

"What can the secretary do and not do? I think that's where the lawsuits will be," said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama.

Early reaction

Civil rights groups say they're waiting for real, live legislative language, not just a framework, before weighing in.

But already, other accountability hawks are not happy campers.

"States are being given license to create systems that are significantly not based on student learning. That's a problem," said Sandy Kress, an original architect of the NCLB law. "This pretty much eliminates any kind of expectation for closing the achievement gap." (Another take from Chad Aldeman at Bellwether Education Partner's blog Ahead of the Heard.)

But some state chiefs say there's no way that's happening. After all, it didn't under the NCLB waivers.

"I'm bothered when I hear people say that school chiefs won't hold schools accountable," said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's education chief. "That's not been evident with the waivers. ... We've supported our schools and we've held them accountable. I hope America can see that."


For more details on accountability and the bill, go to Education Week. 


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