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Are the ESSA requirements that replaced No Child Left Behind working?

 (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee held a hearing to evaluate state’s education proposals under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The ESSA Act, passed with bipartisan support in 2015, reformed and replaced the No Child Left Behind Program after educators argued that the “one size fits all” model was failing students. Under ESSA the states can address their unique challenges and allocate federal funds how they see fit. Each state, with the exceptions of the two that were affected by the recent hurricanes (i.e. Texas and Florida), were required to send in their budget plans to the Department of Education by September 18th.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has 120 days from the time the plan was submitted to approve or revise it. So far, DeVos has received criticism for being too lenient with her approvals and not following the guidelines Congress outlined in the ESSA legislation. During Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Democrats and Republicans discussed the successes and failures of the program’s guidelines with education leaders.

Of the challenges discussed, was the lack of clarity in many states proposed plans. Outside groups that have studied ESSA have criticized educators for not outlining clear guidelines to address “chronically low-performing schools.” Dr. David Steiner, the Executive Director of Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, has studied the states proposed plans and testified before the committee.

“Some plans are deeply vague about consistently underperforming subgroups,” Steiner said.

Based off of the submitted plans, Steiner expressed his concern with the lack of data schools are using to evaluate their proposals.

“In multiple state plans, the plans for assisting low performing schools lack all specificity and make no mention of evidence-based practices,” Steiner said.

The education expert revealed that at least one state doesn’t even meet the ESSA testing requirements for students. ESSA is designed so that local leaders and educators can collaborate on ways to better their schools, but experts who have reviewed the state’s proposals graded the plans overall to be ‘mediocre.’

Other concerns mentioned during the two-hour hearing addressed the stigma of career and technical programs, the lack of transparency for standardized tests, and ways to incentivize teachers to perform at the top level in low performing schools.

Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) commended three states for their exemplary ESSA plans.

“Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico have taken the most advantage of the flexibility we offered under the law in creating innovative state plans,” Alexander said.

Education leaders from these top three states testified at the hearing to discuss the successes of their plans.

The chairman applauded his home state, Tennessee, for including a “Ready Graduate Indicator” which assesses student preparedness for the workforce, college, or the military.

Louisiana has placed a high focus on developing career specific and technical courses to better prepare students for jobs after graduation. The state also revised their teacher review process through a “growth to mastery” program that outlines targets students must achieve for the teacher to receive the highest rating.

New Mexico has utilized their ESSA resources to offer more services to students who may need extra help in a specific subject. Applauding the federal government for giving powers back to the states, the New Mexico Secretary of Education said his state used the flexibility as the legislation intended, and met with local educators and parents about the support that students need.

While the three states vary in their approaches, they were applauded by the Senate members for their proposals to the Department of Education.

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