[ESSA Authorization] What Will 2016 Bring for Education?

Monday, January 4, 2016 -- Dave Adams

It’s a new year and there’s certainly a lot of change in store for K-12 education.  We start 2016 with a new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a new federal education budget, and new leadership at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). While 2015 will go on record as one of Congress’s least productive years in history, when it comes to education, the House and Senate worked effectively just before the holiday break to pass both the ESSA and the new federal budget. In a previous blog we looked at what’s new with this reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Now, let’s look to the future and consider what the transition from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to ESSA, the new budget, and new leadership at the DOE may bring.

Modest Spending Increase for Education

The new omnibus federal budget bill includes a $1.2B increase in education spending.  This is great news for schools. However, even more important than the spending increase is the simple fact that schools now have a real budget. For a number of years, districts and schools have been operating under the uncertainty of continuing resolutions, sequestration, and threat of government shutdown. The new budget provides educators with more stability in their budget planning process than they’ve had in years.

Here’s a look at some of the specific budget increases:

  • Title I gets a $500M increase to approximately $14.9B
  • IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) increases by $415M to $11.9B
  • Head Start increases by $570M to $9.2B
  • Charter school grants increase by $80M to $333M
  • The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) increases by $20M
  • Striving Readers increases by $30M to $190M
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers increases by $15M
  • Impact Aid increases by $17M to $1.3B
  • Promise Neighborhoods increases by $16.5M to $73M
  • Safe and Drug-Free Schools increases by $5M to $75M
  • Rural education increases by $6M to $176M

Some cuts in education spending include:

  • The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is ultimately eliminated in ESSA but receives 2016 funding of $450M, a decrease from $506M in 2015.
  • Title I Program Evaluation gets cut by almost $1M, and the Transition to Teaching program is eliminated.

Formula funded programs in the new budget will continue to operate under the previous reauthorization of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) through the 2016-17 school year.  There’s still more guidance coming from the federal department of education regarding the overall transition of NCLB funding and policy into new ESSA rules.

Transitioning from NCLB to ESSA

The U.S. Department of Education has published some early guidance on how the transition from NCLB to ESSA will work. The NCLB waivers that many states are currently operating under will expire on August 1, 2016. New ESSA rules don’t fully go into effect until the 2017-18 school year, so there will be a one-year period of transition where states and schools will be moving away from NCLB toward the new policy. This period is critical because some of the ESSA changes are complex and will take significant time to design and implement, especially when it comes to the shift in accountability from the federal DOE to the states. Here are a few things to watch for at the state DOE level during this transition period:

State waivers

Preliminary guidance from the federal DOE has signaled that the focus going forward should be on the new accountability components of ESSA like assessments, standards, and improving under-performing schools. During the transition period, states will not be forced to comply with NCLB waiver components that go away in 2017-18.

Academic Goals

Of course there’s no more requirement or expectation that states will get all students to NCLB defined proficiency. States will have much more power under ESSA to define their own academic goals, standards, and assessments without interference from the federal DOE. 

Assessment Flexibility

The basic NCLB requirements to test students in grades 3-8 annually and once during high school stay in place under ESSA. But, in an effort to give states more control in defining their own state tests, the ESSA allows states flexibility to implement new and different types of assessments. These new assessment types could include performance-based tests, authentic assessments, adaptive tests, or interim tests administered throughout the school year rather than a single end-of-year test. Since most states have already been through considerable change in the past five years moving toward more challenging standards and assessments, we’re not likely to see many state wide initiatives around these assessment innovations. Instead, we may see some pilots of new assessment types at a district level.

Teacher Evaluation

One of the most controversial NCLB waiver requirements, teacher evaluations based on student achievement data, will be going away. There will be no role for the federal DOE in teacher evaluation under ESSA. States that are currently out of compliance with this aspect of their waiver will not be required to take action. Since these evaluations have been extremely controversial, especially within teachers’ unions, we will likely see a number of states backing away from this student achievement data-based teacher evaluation.

School Evaluation

While states will not be required to use student test data in teacher evaluation, that data will be used in school and district accountability systems. States will have considerable discretion in setting both long-term and interim goals, but will still be required to report and intervene in low-performing schools, including identifying the lowest performing 5% of schools. A new requirement for school evaluation under ESSA is the inclusion of other factors that impact a students’ opportunity to learn, such as school environment (also called school climate), access to advanced coursework, and teacher engagement.

Closing the Achievement Gap

With much pressure from civil rights groups, the ESSA continues to require schools and states to report achievement by student subgroups (race, economic status, English-language learners, etc.) and goes even further to eliminate the practice of combining categories into “super-subgroups”. States now will be held accountable for each subgroup separately and must show progress toward closing achievement gaps.

New Leadership

With all the policy and budgetary change coming in 2016 it seems appropriate that the federal DOE is also coming under new leadership. Outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been one of the most powerful secretaries in decades, implementing a host of top-down accountability measures. Much of this federal oversight will be greatly diminished or go away completely as ESSA moves power back to states. So, in this new environment what can we expect under the leadership of incoming secretary Dr. John B. King, Jr.?

King is an educator and education reformer whose career began in the classroom and has since progressed through various levels of local, state, and federal administration. While we don’t know yet how the King administration will implement ESSA policy, it is possible to make some predictions based upon King’s past work.  Here’s a look at some areas that could be a focus:

  • King has a strong history of improving educational opportunities for students in the highest-need communities. It would make sense to see King supporting strong implementation of the new ESSA rules around subgroups and closing achievement gaps.
  • King has been a leader and founder of charter schools including Uncommon Schools and Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Since ESSA allows the use of charters in turning around low-performing schools and the federal budget increases charter funding, we will likely see continued support for charters at the federal level.
  • As New York State education commissioner, King worked to deepen collaboration between preschool and K-12 institutions. With the increase in early childhood funding in the new budget this is another likely area of focus for the King administration.
  • Expanding career and technical education (CTE) in high-demand fields is also an important part of King’s past work and supported in the ESSA under both Title II and IV.
  • King was a big supporter of accountability systems that include using student test data in teacher and principal evaluations. Since the ESSA prohibits any federal role here, King’s focus in the area of accountability is likely to be in closing achievement gaps and providing equal equity of access to high-quality education for all students, especially those in at-risk communities.

Optimism for 2016

Educators have a lot to be optimistic about in 2016. With the combination of ESSA policy, a federal budget, and new education leadership in Washington, schools systems have more certainty and stability than they’ve had in years. This should create conditions conducive to long-term planning and positive education reforms. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but after all, it is a new year!

Interested in learning more about the Every Student Succeeds Act and the newly approved federal budget? Check out the U.S. Department of Education’s ESSA webpage for a comprehensive overview as well as resources for educators, students, and parents.  

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