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The Every Student Succeeds Act, California, and History-Social Science

created Feb 25, 2016 10:59 AM

obamasignsessaBeginning with the passage of the first major federal education legislation in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) effectively inserted the federal government into K-12 education, a role institutionalized with the creation of the US Department of Education in 1979.  Using federal dollars as both carrots and sticks, the federal government incentivized a variety of educational reform efforts designed to improve student learning and promote “full educational opportunity” at the state and local level through both published policy reports, such as 1983’s A Nation at Risk, and periodic ESEA reauthorization, such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002. 

With the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress has signaled, with the President’s support, a continued role for the federal government in K-12 education, albeit with significant changes from ESEA’s most recent iteration, NCLB.  ESSA maintains the federal government’s interest in monitoring student learning, but has severely reduced its role in state and local accountability.  Paralleling the transfer of control in educational policymaking to the local level in California, ESSA empowers state departments of education, organizations that have, in recent years, seen their budgets slashed by the recent recession, and in California, the decision to replace state-led categorical programs to unrestricted local control funding.   Moreover, ESSA requires that state educational agencies change their focus from compliance with federal accountability measures to the promotion of educational innovation and strategic support for schools and districts.  Other major changes that parallel California’s recent educational reform efforts are the law’s emphasis on English language development, and consideration of non-test-based accountability measures, such as student graduation rates, and family and community engagement.

Although ESSA was signed into law at the end of 2015, the law will not fully go into effect until the 2017-18 school year.  Moreover, although the legislation includes the authorization of a variety of programs, including some dedicated to history-social science, funding will actually need to be appropriated by Congress in FY17 in order for these programs to begin and sustain their efforts.

What does ESSA include?

  • On Standards:  ESSA maintains the federal government’s preference for rigorous standards, but expressly forbids Washington and more specifically, the Secretary of Education, from promoting or requiring any specific set of standards. 
  • On English Language Development:  ESSA requires states to develop and implement ELD standards that include speaking, listing, reading, and writing.  California adopted ELD standards in 2012.
  • On Testing:  ESSA requires states to test students in ELA and Math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  It also requires tests in science once in each of the following grade spans:  3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.
  • On Accountability:    ESSA ends the maligned federal. Annual Yearly Progress metric. Instead, it requires states to set goals for student achievement (State Accountability Plans), but does not define what these goals specifically should be. That said, it requires states to include multiple measures – state tests, plus at least one other academic indicator (such as graduation rate), plus English proficiency, plus one other non-academic indicator (such as family or community engagement measurements).  As states develop these plans, they must include a formula to determine the lowest 5% of schools, which then must be targeted for intervention.  Schools must still report student achievement by subgroup (EL, Special Education, ethnic groups).
  • On Teachers:  Unlike NCLB, states are not required to implement teacher evaluation systems, but they must demonstrate how schools with high numbers of English learners, students of color, and low-income children have teachers who are effective and experienced.
  • On Title II Grant Programs:  ESSA eliminates some grant programs (such as the Mathematics and Science Partnership Grants), creates new ones (such as those in history and civics), and consolidates still others (Supporting Effective Educator Development).  While ESSA does lay out funding caps for each of these programs, Congress must still appropriate actual dollars before they can be implemented.
  • On Preschool:  In response to co-sponsor Patty Murray’s request, ESSA includes a new preschool development grant program, administered jointly between the US Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

How are Californians responding to the new law? 

California’s educational leaders are generally positive in their evaluations of the new federal law and are optimistic that Sacramento – Washington relations will improve under this new system.  (Under the Obama administration, California was one of a handful of states that was denied a waiver from NCLB’s harsh accountability provisions).  They are also pleased with the federal law’s adoption of many of California’s reforms, such as increased flexibility and transferring control to lower levels of governance.  Teacher union leaders are pleased with ESSA’s limitations on the power of the Secretary of Education specifically and the federal government in general.  They are also pleased with the movement away from  teacher evaluation systems based in student test scores.

Civil rights groups have offered cautious support, but are wary of the law’s reduced accountability measures and fear the flexibility embedded in both ESSA and state reform efforts, such as the Local Control Funding Formula, will weaken efforts to reduce the achievement gaps.  The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) argues that “…while the ESSA is strong in specificity, it lacks the necessary aggressiveness to address one of the nation’s foremost national security crises:  the still unmet challenge of providing equal educational access to all students.”  Education Trust West is more hopeful but still wary: “…ESSA maintains many of the best elements of the old law and improves upon some of its shortcomings.”  Education Trust West’s concerns center on the intersection of ESSA’s goals and California’s current reform efforts, led by the State Board.  They are concerned that California schools will once again face two separate and slightly different accountability systems that allow for both schools and their students to fall through the cracks.

What about history-social science?

There are five programs that could potentially offer support for history-social science within the new law.  In Title II, Part B, Subpart 3, Section 2231, ESSA authorizes programs in American History and Government, distributed into two parts:  Section 2232, Presidential and Congressional Academies for American History and Civics and Section 2232, National Activities.  If funds are appropriated for these programs in FY17 (up to $6.5 million allocation; ¼ for academies and ¾ for national activities), the US Department of Education would award competitive grants to institutions of higher education, museums, libraries, research organizations, or other non-profit organizations to:

1)        support teacher professional development (Presidential Academies),

2)        teach students (Congressional Academies), and

3)        promote “…evidence-based strategies to encourage innovative instruction in American history, civics and government, and geography; learning strategies; professional development activities and programs for teachers, principals, and other school leaders… that benefit low-income students and underserved populations.” (National Activities).

In Title IV, part A, Section 4107, ESSA details the Well-Rounded Educational Opportunities program, which, if funded, would support a competitive grant program to develop and implement a well-rounded education, including, but not limited to, “activities to promote the development, implementation, and strengthening of programs to teach traditional American history, civics, economics, geography, or government education.” Grants would be awarded to LEAs, in partnership with other LEAs, institutions of higher education, museums, non-profits, etc.

Finally, in Section 4611, ESSA provides for Education Innovation and Research grants, to support the evaluation of strategies and resources to support student learning, including innovations in history, civics, and social studies.

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