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ESSA and SSAEG: Implementing a Well-Rounded Education

ESSA and SSAEG: Implementing a Well-Rounded Education

As schools prepare to wrap up the 2015–16 academic year, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about a new program under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that will offer some exciting opportunities in teaching and learning next year. Last week, we offered an update of regulations agreed upon by the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee since passage of the act in December. This week, we’re going to focus  on the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG) program. It isn’t just another accountability or regulatory program; it’s a real opportunity for schools and teachers to create a more well-rounded climate for learning and to enhance how and what students learn. 

What Are Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG)?

You may have heard SSAEG described in more political terms as a new $1.6 billion ESSA program that consolidates about 50 different federal funding programs into one state block grant. While that definition is true, it’s not the whole story. SSAEG is more than a large block of money given to states in an effort to shift political power from the federal level back to states and districts. Instead, it is a program designed to broaden students’ educational experience in some truly relevant 21st century ways. SSAEG asks states and districts to take a more holistic approach to improving the overall conditions for student learning and ensure that all students have access to a “well-rounded” education. This new policy also promotes innovative approaches to learning, like blended learning, personalized learning, technology-based instruction, and technology-based interventions.

The specific guidance for SSAEG is found in ESSA under Title IV, 21st Century Schools, Part A. It is meant to improve schools in three specific ways:

  1. Provide all students with access to a well-rounded education
  2. Improve school conditions, providing safe, healthy learning environments
  3. Improve the use of technology to enhance the academic achievement and digital literacy of all students

Before describing each of these three areas, it’s worth taking a step back and asking, why is it important to address them now? The answer can be traced back to the early days of NCLB and some of the unintended consequences which resulted from that policy. When NCLB first required all schools to test all students in grades 3–8 and high school in reading/language arts and math, no one intended that other subjects should be diminished or cut—but that’s what happened. It wasn’t long after NCLB was passed that some physical education, health, art, music, theater, social studies, and career programs were reduced or cut all together. ESSA is meant to help reverse that narrowing of curriculum and focus on assessment from NCLB. Let’s look at each of the three areas of SSAEG to see how this new policy and funding might potentially transform teaching and learning.

Well-Rounded Education

This first part of SSAEG is designed to help broaden what is taught in schools in order to provide students with more opportunities to learn across more subject areas. Under well-rounded education, ESSA provides a list of suggested uses for funds that include:

  • College and career guidance and counseling programs
  • Activities that use music and the arts to support student success
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiatives
  • Accelerated learning programs such as Advanced Placement®, International Baccalaureate®, and dual enrollment
  • Social studies programs like history, civics, government, economics, and geography
  • Foreign language education
  • Environmental education
  • Volunteerism and community involvement
  • Integrating multiple disciplines, such as programs that combine art and math
  • Other programs that support student success in well-rounded educational experiences

It’s important to note that the last two items on this list indicate that it should be interpreted as representing only a few suggested considerations with many other options possible. Additional programs that could be added to the list might include CTE (career and technical education), electives, liberal arts subjects, drama, marching band, orchestra, and visual arts programs to name just a few.

In addition to broadening what is taught in schools, SSAEG also attempts to improve the overall conditions for learning within a school (the school climate) by creating safe and healthy environments to support student success. The policy guidance here emphasizes both student-focused programs and professional development, and suggests specific areas of focus that include:

  • Drug, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and violence prevention
  • Mental health services
  • Supporting physical health and safety
  • Preventing bullying and abuse
  • Establishing dropout prevention and reentry programs
  • Training for educators to provide healthy, safe school environments
  • Child sexual abuse awareness and prevention programs
  • Designing discipline practices that reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions
  • Positive behavioral intervention programs
  • Programs that provide community partnerships and support student success

Technology to Enhance Learning

The third category of SSAEG targets some specific ways in which technology can transform learning in schools and in the classroom. This part of the policy emphasizes both programs and professional development focused on enhancing the use of technology within the teaching and learning process through initiatives like blended or personalized learning. Suggested uses of these funds include:

  • Personalize learning to improve student academic achievement
  • Finding, adapting, and sharing relevant high-quality educational resources
  • Using technology in the classroom, including computer-based assessments and blended learning
  • Using technology to inform instruction, support teacher collaboration, and personalize learning
  • Procuring content and ensuring content quality
  • Purchasing devices, equipment, and software
  • Delivering rigorous academic courses and curricula via technology
  • Blended learning – planning, purchasing digital instruction, and implementing projects
  • Blended learning – ongoing professional development to support academic success
  • Professional development to support technology use in STEM areas
  • Providing rural students with access to digital resources and online courses

One way in which this section of SSAEG maintains a focus on teaching and learning is by strictly limiting the percentage of funds (no more than 15 percent) that can be spent on technical infrastructure, hardware, and bandwidth.

Funding Allocation and Spending Requirements

Now, let’s take a closer look at the breakdown of SSAEG funding. Since SSAEG is a new program, funds will be distributed for the first time during the 2017 budget process. To make the most of these funds, it is important for districts and schools to begin planning for their use now. Here are some key considerations in planning for the distribution and use of SSAEG funds in 2017:

  • $1.65 billion is authorized for SSAEG in the 2017 federal budget
  • $1.6 billion is authorized annually in years 2018–20
  • Funds will be a block grant to states through the federal budget process
  • Funds will be distributed via Title I funding formulas
  • States must distribute 95 percent of the funds to districts
  • There’s a $10,000 minimum grant amount (smaller districts can form consortia to qualify for funds)
  • Any district that receives a formula allocation above $30,000 must expend the funds across these three areas:
    • At least 20 percent of district funds must be spent on well-rounded educational opportunities
    • At least 20 percent of district funds must be spent on safety and health student programs
    • Up to 60 percent of district funds can be used to support the effective use of technology, with no more than 15 percent going to technology infrastructure
  • States must use 4 percent of the total funds they receive for district monitoring, training, technical assistance, and capacity building

Because these are new funds authorized by ESSA in next year’s budget, it’s important to note that there are still political hurdles to overcome. In fact, the first of these obstacles already unfolded when U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., presented an initial 2017 budget proposal from the president.  While the first draft of the president’s 2017 budget had an overall increase in education spending, it only recommended $500 million for SSAEG rather than the full $1.65 billion—less than a third of what was authorized in ESSA. These cuts are being opposed by over 75 education organizations along with the bipartisan education committee members who worked so hard to put the SSAEG policies together. It will take Congress months of negotiation and debate to get to an approved 2017 federal budget, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get back to or near the original $1.65 billion authorized. In the meantime, it will be important to both monitor any changes to the SSAEG policy and begin planning how this policy can enhance the overall conditions for learning within schools.

For the latest information and updates on Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants and other ESSA programs, see the U.S. Department of Education ESSA website.

Interested in learning more about Edmentum programs aligned with SSAEG policy and funding? Check out our online solutions for blended learning, personalized learning, virtual learning and online courses, and one-on-one initiatives.


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