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.  Since 2001, CES’s principal objective has been to replace the punitive, destructive and ineffective NCLB — and later, 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 has carried out its mission chiefly by: writing articles; drafting proposed legislation; giving talks on Capitol Hill; lobbying Congress and gaining legislative sponsors; helping to lead the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), a coalition of national organizations similarly focused on replacing NCLB; and an education blog in Huffington Post.  For the last two years, CES has been calling on Congress to work on a bi-partisan 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 has addressed its approach in 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.

After a 15 year battle, CES is delighted that, as of December 10, 2015, NCLB has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).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 its own behalf and/or as part of FEA — as to accountability and school improvement. 

The most important steps ESSA takes 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;
  • Abolishing administration’s waiver system, including requirement to base teacher evaluations in part on students’ standardized test scores;
  • Requiring districts, in partnership with stakeholders, to develop “comprehensive…  plans” for lowest-achieving Title I-funded schools, including conducting needs assessments and addressing “resource inequities” and providing special funding for these schools; and
  • Requiring the States’ accountability systems to include, in addition to test scores, at least “one indicator of school quality or student success,” such as “student climate and safety.”

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: 

  • 66% of today’s approximately 50 million public school students are still below “Proficiency” in reading and 64% below it in math, as measured by the average of grades 4 and 8 on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  (That is, more than 30 million of our public school students lack sufficient knowledge and skills in those subjects to satisfy the national academic goal at their grade levels);
  • Of minority and low-income students, the situation is even worse.  83% of our 7.7 million black students and 79% of our 12.8 million Hispanic students lack “Proficiency” in reading, while 84% of black students and 77% of Hispanic students lack “Proficiency” in math;
  • 10 million low-income students (40% of 25 million) lack even “Basic” skills at their respective grade levels in reading and 8.7 million low-income students (35%) lack such skills in math.  (That is, they lack even partial mastery of these critical subjects.)*
  • None of the above NAEP percentages improved in 2015 compared to 2013 and most got worse.

*(For example, fourth graders below "Basic" in math cannot "use basic facts to perform simple computations with whole numbers." Eighth graders below "Proficiency" in reading cannot "give details and examples to support themes that they identify" in eighth grade literature.)

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 set up their accountability systems and conduct school improvement.  It’s not self-evident how to do this effectively.  CES will concentrate on encouraging and helping the States and localities to integrate their implementation of accountability, school improvement, teacher and principal preparation and assessments so that all focus on doing what works to help schools improve.

© 2016 Citizens for Effective Schools