Commentary: Opportunity and Challenge in ‘No Child’ Rewrite
Guest contributor | December 14, 2015
By Chris Hofmann
President Obama last week signed the most important education legislation in over a decade, the long-awaited reauthorization of ESEA and No Child Left Behind. The provisions of the law will have a profound effect on what school is like for my class of 26 fourth graders and will reverberate throughout the everyday educational experiences of our nation’s 50 million K-12 students.
The bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a significant improvement over earlier versions and makes key changes to the way we hold schools accountable for what students learn. It also provides a critical opportunity for experimentation and research in what makes a great school. That said, the law is not without its challenges. Ultimately, it will only live up to ESEA’s legacy as a seminal civil rights law if educators, parents and students hold state lawmakers accountable for learning from past efforts and making changes that improve outcomes for all students.
One way that ESSA improves upon No Child Left Behind is that it recognizes that proficiency on state tests is only one dimension of a school’s quality.
When I think about my fourth graders, I realize that no single data point can truly capture who my students are or what they can do. Likewise, no single data point linked to a state test score can truly capture the educational experience of a school. ESSA recognizes this and requires states to include at least four academic indicators: proficiency on state tests, English language proficiency, high school graduation rates and a fourth state-determined factor of academic quality.
The law also requires states to incorporate at least one other measure of an entirely different sort that aims to tap into the other factors that make a school great. The states will be left to choose this measure, but it could include anything from surveys of family and student engagement to gauges of school discipline and safety.
This is great news for schools. For the last six years, I’ve worked at a 2015 National Blue Ribbon school in east Los Angeles. What makes our school great is not just our high levels of student learning; it’s the way we celebrate our students’ growth. It’s also the way we get to know our families with home visits and the way we encourage parental support with frequent communication. It’s the way we continue to think about and evaluate how we nurture our students’ confidence and character.
All of these are critically important factors in making a school a vibrant and wonderful place for kids. And with the passage of ESSA, states now have the opportunity to craft accountability systems that account for what teachers, students and parents value.
Of course, our school’s north star is always student learning. Thankfully, ESSA strikes a balance between student learning and other factors in determining a school’s quality. In a significant improvement over earlier drafts of the bill, the final law requires states’ accountability systems to count academic indicators “much more” than the other factors. This will prevent states and schools from using other data points to mask low academic performance.
In this way, ESSA rightly keeps the focus on a school’s central purpose, teaching knowledge and skills students need to be successful in a competitive world, while acknowledging that there is so much more to a great school.
With 50 states developing their own accountability systems, this moment provides us with a unique opportunity to research and innovate. California should experiment with creating measures that capture students’ academic growth over time. We should experiment with different ways to gather and synthesize non-academic factors of school quality and with how we would weigh all of these distinct factors to create an accountability system focused on what we value in a school.
Most importantly, on a state and federal level, we need to study closely the effects of these systems, learn from each other’s successes and failures and quickly make improvements. There will be a tremendous amount of learning to be done in the next few years and, like our students, we all need to be ready to learn and grow.
Let’s start this new chapter in American education on a high note. Let’s create accountability systems based on what we think is truly important about a school. Let’s be ready to learn from each other. And most importantly, let’s be vigilant in making sure all kids get what they need to thrive.
Chris Hofmann is a fourth grade teacher at a public charter elementary school in east Los Angeles and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.