Citizens for Effective Schools

Replacing NCLB with ESSA:
Citizens for Effective Schools Involvement and Next Steps

Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc. (CES) is a non-partisan, non-profit, national advocacy organization of citizens committed to attaining the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) goal of academic proficiency for virtually all public school students, regardless of race, ethnicity or income.  From 2001-2015, CES’s principal objective was to replace the punitive, destructive and ineffective NCLB, and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top and waivers, with a law that would focus not on high-stakes testing, but on helping schools improve.

CES carried out its mission chiefly by: writing articles; drafting and submitting to Congress proposed legislation amending NCLB; giving talks on Capitol Hill; lobbying Congress and the White House; helping to lead and write policy advocacy documents for the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), a coalition of national organizations similarly focused on replacing NCLB; and writing an education blog in Huffington Post

From 2013-2015, CES called on Congress to work on a bipartisan basis to overhaul NCLB on an educationally sound, principled basis: especially to focus on helping low-achieving schools do what research and experience show works to help them improve.

In part, CES did this through the following articles in Huffington Post: “After NCLB? Emerging Strategy Shift?” (9/10/13); “Principled, Sound Middle Way to Education Reauthorization”(11/14/13); “Answering Chairman Alexander’s Two Critical Questions for Congressional Education Reauthorization” (2/23/15); and “Senate’s ESEA Challenge: Strengthen Accountability to Help Schools Improve, Not Perpetuate Test-driven Accountability” (7/7/15).

These efforts were designed first to change the public debate — by showing that NCLB’s “test and punish” approach was misconceived, harmful and ineffective — and second, to guide public policy to focus instead on helping schools improve by doing what works.

CES is delighted that, after a 15-year battle, as of December 10, 2015, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  ESSA incorporates to a significant extent both CES’s overall approach of replacing “test and punish” with “helping schools improve” and key policies CES has advocated — on behalf of FEA and/or on its own behalf — as to accountability and school improvement. 

The most important such policies include:

  • Abolishing NCLB’s mandates of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP),  all students proficient by 2014,  and escalating sanctions for Title I-funded schools “failing” AYP;
  • Abolishing Race to the Top, including 4 rigid school turnaround models essentially requiring replacement of principals, replacement of 50% or more of staff, conversion to charters/other privatization or closure;
  • Requiring districts, in partnership with stakeholders, to develop “comprehensive…  plans” for lowest-achieving Title I-funded schools, including conducting needs assessments and providing special funding for these schools;
  • Expanding accountability beyond test scores to include “school quality” indicators; and
  • Requiring Federal grantees to provide intensive clinical preparation for teaching candidates, as well as providing grants to prepare principals to lead low-achieving schools.

In short, ESSA is a major step in the right direction. It still puts too much emphasis on standardized testing and fails to provide enough guidance as to what works to turn around low-achieving schools.  But, importantly, it shifts the emphasis of federal law away from imposing sanctions for low test scores and toward working with stakeholders, meeting students’ needs and helping low-achieving schools improve.

While ESSA is welcome, the problems it addresses remain severe: 

  • 65% of today’s approximately 50 million public school students are still below “Proficiency” in reading and 63% below it in math, as measured by the average of grades 4 and 8 on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  (That is, more than 30 million of our public school students lack sufficient knowledge and skills to be competent with “challenging subject matter” in those subjects at their grade levels);
  • Of minority students in America’s public and private schools, collectively, the situation is even worse.  About 81% of black students and 77% of Hispanic students lack “Proficiency” in reading, while 84% of black students and 77% of Hispanic students lack “Proficiency” in math;
  • Moreover, about 45% of black students and 40% of Hispanic students lack even “Basic” skills at their respective grade levels in reading; 41% of black students and 36% of Hispanic students lack such skills in math.  (That is, they lack even partial mastery of these crucial subjects.)*

*(For example, fourth graders below “Basic” in math cannot “use basic facts to perform simple computations with whole numbers.” Eighth graders below “Basic” in reading cannot “identify statements of main idea, theme or author’s purpose... and make simple inferences from texts.”)

The critical need now is for the States and localities to effectively implement ESSA.  The law gives them a vast amount of discretion as to how to conduct school improvement and set up their accountability systems. But it’s not self-evident how to do this effectively. 

CES will concentrate on encouraging and helping the States and localities to develop the common elements of successful school turnarounds — elements that also characterize good schools generally — in all of their low-achieving schools. These elements produce collaborative, mutually supportive, stimulating school environments in which students learn well and teachers, staff, parents and interested community members thrive. Accountability needs to be designed chiefly to promote the creation of these key conditions.


2018 Citizens for Effective Schools