The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the second reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) signed into law as part of president Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty in 1965. In this paper, we explore the provisions of ESSA through the lens of Deborah Stone’s policy framework and explore the impact of federal involvement in public education. Despite federal involvement in education policy, student achievement has remained flat across subgroups. Because of proximity, a singular focus on accountability, and a narrow view of education quality, the federal government continues to fail to address the nuanced needs of all children in our public schools. Throughout the paper we also explore problems, solutions and goals, and make recommendations as we explore the gap that exist between the ESSA policy intentions, and the current implementation.
The reauthorization of ESEA serves as a symbol that the federal government takes equity seriously and will continue to support our highest need schools. However, accountability, which is a pillar of the new policy also serves as a symbol in the current public education climate. Accountability in public education denotes the need to be tough on lazy teachers and their unions, top down management structures, annual testing, and standardization. This point of view has become the new common sense in public education. Accountability also implies that teachers lack efficacy and have low expectations for students, which are research based pillars to student achievement.
The goal of ESSA, is to put systems in place that ensure every student succeeds in school. ESSA is attempting to do this by holding states accountable for state report cards and state plans, providing more flexibility and control over education policy at the state level, assessment flexibility, guidance around test refusals, offering an innovative assessment pilot to select states, mandating indicators of school quality and student success, maintaining a focus on English language learners and low performing schools, and continuing with Title I, Title II, and Title IV provisions (Arogon, Griffith, Wixom, Woods & Workman, 2016).
The problem with ESSA is it pursues the goal of student success by continuing the annual testing framework and its demand for “high” standards. First, the annual testing framework has been in place since NCLB, and not only has achievement remained flat since 2001, but achievement gaps remain between the rich and the poor, and the white and minority. There is no empirical research base to shows that annual testing improves student success. Second, although high standards are important, the idea that all students develop “proficiency” at the same rate is misguided. Children are different and ESSA does not provide enough flexibility to schools and districts to meet the unique needs of their communities. The ESSA policy continues to ignore the nuance of community culture, diverse student needs, socioeconomic variables related to poverty, and other tacit community factors.
Finally, at present standardized tests have a particular design that favors students who are strong in linguistic intelligence and verbal reasoning, which reside in the neocortex and analytical center of the brain. This design is biased against students strong in the limbic system of the brain, and interact with the world more aesthetically and holistically (Goleman 1996).
With regard to efficiency, analyzing the cost related to annual high stakes testing and the remaining achievement, we must conclude that annual testing has been inefficient in practice. At present, our annual testing program in New York State, consists of at least 9 hours of testing in grades 3-8, and there is clear evidence to show that the majority of students are not succeeding especially in low income communities.
From a welfare perspective, the welfare of individuals most impacted by ESSA: teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, school boards, and students, has been greatly overlooked as local stakeholders have been largely marginalized throughout the creation of the ESSA policy. As a result, there are teacher shortages throughout the country, large numbers of students report being disengaged at school, and parents across the country are refusing annual state testing in droves.
ESSA requires state accountability plans to include the following five indicators: proficiency on assessments, growth in proficiency in grades below high school or another academic indicator, high school graduation rates, progress of English Learners’s toward proficiency, and a fifth “other” indicator that looks at school quality (Arogon, Griffith, Wixom, Woods & Workman, 2016). Four out of five ESSA indicators focus on academic performance, with the one “other” indicator possibly interpretable as a well-being indicator.
Under ESSA, government is seeking to, as Stone (2012) explains, “provide for human wants” with its Title I, Title II, and Title IV programs (p. 86). However, because of the lack of care regarding the challenges of implementation, the resistance from stakeholders, particularly in New York State remains strong. In New York State, roughly 225,000 parents refused to allow their child to take the state test after the law was signed into place. Many parents will continue to resist annual testing because of concerns for the welfare of their children; especially children with special needs, English learners, children of color, and economically disadvantaged children; all groups who historically do poorly on standardized tests.
As poverty and demographics are more of a predictor of student achievement than the behaviors of schools and teachers, by testing students from certain backgrounds annually, one can argue that ESSA inflicts “persistent denigration” on children who were born into poverty, which as Stone (2012) explains, leads economically disadvantaged students to continuously doubt their “self-worth, believe negative stereotypes about themselves, devalue their own cultures and lower their aspirations” (p. 111-112).
These harms not only impact students, but the profession overall. A 2015 NPR article written by Eric Westervelt explains that there are alarming drops in teacher enrollment programs in big states like “California, New York, Texas, and North Carolina” (p. 2). Bill McDiarmid, the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education identifies a growing sense that K-12 teachers simply have less control over their professional lives in a bitter, politicized environment. The article goes onto say:
The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations. Throw in the erosion of tenure protections and a variety of recession-induced budget cuts, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis (pg. 2).
Which facts inform the ESSA law? Former secretary of education Arne Duncan, who is a proponent of annual testing and “high standards,” was a major actor in the process. Secretary Duncan also believes that rewards for those who comply with the law, and punishment for those that do not (carrots and sticks), is essential to student success. Despite research to the contrary, ESSA continues the accountability narrative with few adjustments. Consider the contrast of self-determination theory (SDT), discussed by Daniel Pink (2011):
Over the last thirty years, through their scholarship and mentorship, Deci and Ryan have established a network of several dozen SDT scholars conducting research in the United States, Canada, Israel, and Singapore and throughout Western Europe. These scientists have explored self-determination and intrinsic motivation in laboratory experiments and field studies that encompass just about every realm – business, education, medicine, sports, exercise, personal productivity, environmentalism, relationships, and physical and mental health.
They have produced hundreds of research papers, most of which point to the same conclusion. Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another (p. 128)
The SDT research indicates that our education policy should influence autonomy and collaboration as opposed to standardization and competition.
The facts driving the ESSA policy as was the case with NCLB, and ESEA, were the facts of special interests, and corporate actors, and not the facts of teachers, who were ostracized during federal policy negotiations.
A whole mind, whole child, whole community mindset and approach to learning and child development would begin to address the welfare and diverse needs of children and local public education stakeholders.
Whole mind pedagogy, ensures a curriculum that incorporates both the neocortex and limbic system. It focuses on both analytical skills and the skills of synthesis, creativity, and collaboration. How stakeholders feel about their work matters. Therefore, whole child pedagogy includes the social, emotional, and cognitive design of curriculum and learning experiences. This includes the multiple intelligences, cultural competency, leadership, and mentoring among many other components. Finally, a whole community mindset involves the implementation of a child development and ecological approach to learning. All of a community’s resources, including schools and healthcare, work cohesively as part of a learning organism to meet the needs of children and families.
ESSA’s approach is mostly academic; and in a very narrow way. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, sociologist Daniel Pink (2006) explains:
The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people – Artist, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys (p. 22)
To create a whole new mind, ESSA requires a whole new approach.
Policy and Goals
The gap between the policy ideal and the reality of achieving policy goals, is caused by a focus on accountability systems and academic achievement as more important than whole child development and the teaching and learning process overall. ESSA focuses more on programs than people, thus, leaving our differently abled children behind.
Incentives are built throughout the ESSA policy. Regarding test participation, the federal government identifies four actions that could be taken if schools do not reach the 95% test participation rate. Those options include assign a lower summative rating to the school, assign the lowest performance level on the state accountability system’s academic achievement indicator, identify the school for targeted support and intervention, implement another equally rigorous state-determined action described in the state plan that will result in a similar outcome for the school and will lead to improvements in the participation rate (Arogon, Griffith, Wixom, Woods & Workman, 2016). This “carrot and stick” approach goes against the research related to SDT and the fact that teacher expectation, ability, and efficacy impacts student achievement more than anything else.
Additional carrots and sticks exist within the Title IV – 21st century schools section of the policy. Arogon, Griffith, Wixom, Woods & Workman, (2016) explains that part of Title IV is the “student support and academic enrichment grant program (SSAEG)” (p. 23). These programs are funded directly to school districts and include three subsections:
1. Well Rounded educational opportunities
2. Safe and healthy students
3. Effective use of technology
SSAEG is a type of block grant that provides districts with a lot of flexibility on how to spend the federal dollars. This block grant should be expanded to give LEA’s the funding and focus to support their diverse curricula and instructional approaches to high standards. Incentivize diversity of high standards as part of a whole mind approach, and incentivize collaboration at the local level so stakeholders can learn from each other.
The rules are very clear with regard to the ESSA policy. States are allowed to create their own standards, but must have “challenging” standards in place. States must also administer tests annually in grades 3-8. If schools and districts have less than 95% participation on the state test, some form of intervention or sanction must be implemented. Certain states can apply to be a member of an assessment innovation pilot to implement assessments more aligned to 21st century learning competencies, and states must have specific plans for English language learners and struggling schools. Stones (2012) explains the concept of rules:
Rules include and exclude, unite and divide. They include and exclude by defining different treatment or permissible activity for different people. They unite and divide by placing people in different categories; those treated favorably by a rule have a common interest in preserving it, while those treated unfavorably share an interest in changing it (p. 293)
The innovative assessment pilot should be expanded from seven states to all fifty states to meet the unique needs of LEAs. Instead of implementing carrot and sticks incentives, let’s take a look at how SDT works in public education. Finally, we should discontinue the inefficient practice of annual testing. Mullen & Tienken (2016) explain how standardized test can be predicted based on socio economic status:
Results from previous studies (Maylone, 2002; Tienken, Tramaglini, & Lynch, 2013; Turnamian & Tienken, 2013) demonstrated that it is possible to accurately predict the percentage of students who will score proficient or above on state standardized tests in language arts and mathematics at the district level by using community and family-level demographic variables found in the U.S. census data. If the percentages of students who score proficient or above on high stakes tests can be predicted statistically using only community and family-level demographic variables, then how appropriate are those results for making significant decisions about student achievement, educator effectiveness, or the overall quality of public schooling (p. 158).
Based on classic and current research, because of proximity, federal accountability does not improve student learning.
Although it is important for rules to be precise for the sake of clarity and compliance, as Stone (2012) mentions, “precision has its disadvantages” (p. 294). Annual testing, 95% participation rates, and four out of five academic indicators of school quality are precise rules. Precise rules are insensitive to individual and contextual differences, and are not tailored to individual circumstances (Stone, 2012).
We are an incredibly diverse democracy, and our diversity requires vagueness of rules so that every voice and every community is valued. From our country’s inception, we have been categorized and classified based on race, gender, class, citizenship, age, ethnicity, and orientation among other things. These classifications have separated all and oppressed many. ESSA with its continued funding of Title I, accounts for some of the historical marginalization involved, the parent resistance, and state test data indicate that our rules should be a bit more tailored to the needs of each community.
Stone (2012) states, “precise rules stifle creative responses to new situations” (p. 295). As America is becoming more diverse in a variety of ways, vague rules are required for districts to be agile in meeting the challenging needs present.
Stone (2012) explains, “the failings of precision are the virtues of vagueness” (p. 295). Vague rules allow sensitivity to differences in a rapid ethnically, politically, and technologically changing environment. Our English Learners represent rich and diverse cultures. Our special needs students cover a wide spectrum just in the categories of learning and emotionally disabled. All blacks, whites, and other “races” are not the same, and while some economically disadvantaged groups do well on annual testing, the majority do not.
Stone (2012) goes onto say:
Vagueness can boost a rule’s effectiveness by allowing individuals with knowledge of particular facts and local conditions to decide on the means for achieving general goals. This is one argument for allocating federal money to states in the form of block grants rather than dictating exactly how a state should spend their public education money (p. 295).
ESSA provides block grants in certain areas but not in others. It is essential to remember that local stakeholders have the tacit knowledge of their districts to adjust and adapt accordingly in the most efficient manner; which runs contrary to the federal government creating policy that impacts states, districts, and even schools.
The needs of public schools are inherently multifaceted as we deal with the diversity of students, families, and their needs. Stone (2012) reminds us that “social systems necessary to solve modern problems are inherently complex” (p. 215). A whole mind, whole child, whole community approach to teaching and learning considers these complexities while preserving the child at the center of the equilibrium.
When considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human development, Maslow advances a theory that humans have five developmental needs that should be met in sequential order. These needs are: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, the need for self-esteem, and the need for self-actualization (Stone 2012). The language of these needs is noticeably absent from the ESSA policy, although one might argue that Title I funding and flexibility helps to provide for the safety (security), and thus welfare of certain populations.
That said, the foundational component of Maslow’s hierarchy, physiological needs, are met mostly outside of school; which is where the impact of poverty on learning comes into play. Poverty has been known to be the number 1 indicator of student performance on standardized tests. Lacour and Tissington (2011) explain:
A study conducted by Sum and Fogg (1991) found that poor students are ranked in the 19th percentile on assessments while students from a mid-upper income family ranked in the 66th percentile on assessments. In data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) measuring kindergarten student achievement on the ECLS reading achievement assessment, low income students scored at about the 30th percentile, middle-income students scored at about the 45th percentile, and upper income students scored at about the 70th percentile (Rowan et al., 2004) (pg. 522).
ESSA does not include in its policy, provisions that encourage collaborations between school and healthcare or other community based organizations to offset the impact of poverty more holistically. Collaboration, an important skill of a healthy democracy is absent from the ESSA policy.
Whole Child reform includes 21st century skills, local decision making and an ecological approach. This is the approach that I argue will lead to success for all students. Research advocating for a more holistic approach to education reform and accountability is growing considerably. A true holistic approach includes not only systems thinking but ecological thinking, as an ecological mindset requires schools and teachers within communities to learn and improve together. Further, a holistic approach encompasses an infrastructure of community as a learning organism. A Whole Child approach also ensures that the social, emotional and cognitive components of a child’s development are fundamental to all schooling and lifelong learning.
Singapore’s education system over the past decade evolutionarily encouraged the integration of a traditionally valued, content, disciplinary focus, and new literacies of self-regulated learning, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (Chua, Hung, Jamaludin & Toh, 2014). Whole Child learning is directly aligned to 21st century learning, and should be treated as essential for a healthy and thriving democracy.
As Slade and Griffith (2013) illustrate, Whole Child learning, at its core, “views the purpose of schooling as developing future citizens and providing the basis for each child to fulfill their potential” (p.21).
Explaining the ecological approach, Griffith and Slade anchor their theory in the welfare of actors by referencing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Whole Child perspective is inclusive of the health and well-being of a child and operates with Maslow’s theory interwoven throughout school and community practices. This approach includes mental health, physical health, proper diet and hygiene, and high academic expectations. Without all of Maslow’s identified needs being met, students will stagnate on the path toward self-actualization.
Often misunderstand; opponents of the Whole Child model not only label such a model dismissively as focusing only on “non-cognitive” or “soft skills,” but as a model also absent of data and accountability. On the contrary, incorporating health and wellness into data tracking and school accountability systems will provide educators, policymakers, and the public with a refined understanding of how to achieve learning and academic outcomes (Ahmed, Hurley & Murray, 2015). Learning is impacted by health and wellness, including trauma and emotional stability. A child that suffers or has suffered from adverse childhood experiences, psychic harm, or is emotionally disconnected from the curriculum, will not learn to their full potential and will not self-actualize.
Further, concerning accountability, Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) has created a Whole Child accountability system, after an extensive community input and data collection process (Ahmed, Hurley & Murray, 2015). The district measures student progress in alignment with whether students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported.
Ahmed, Hurley & Murray (2015) explain:
TPS reports publicly on the benchmarks, promoting trust, transparency, and accountability to the community. TPS engaged in a comprehensive gap analysis of all related policies, processes, and programs to identify action steps. As a result, TPS has increased graduation rates by approximately 20% in 4 years, over 90% of students participate in the PSAT and SAT testing, and an increased number of TPS students receive scholarships to community and four year institutions (p.799)
A key word above is “challenged.” We can cognitively challenge students while also meeting their holistic needs. This is a “yes, and” not an “either, or” approach. Our school system must be redesigned around both quantitative and qualitative measures to promote the welfare and success of all students.
Based on the research, all training, retaining, and professional development programs in public education must focus on whole child reform for all stakeholders. The federal government should provide equitable funding to LEAs and LEAs must be given the liberty to design curriculum, assessments, and learning experiences to meet the needs of their students. Funding can be allocated in the form of block grants to incentivize collaboration at the district level, to facilitate the process of superintendents including principals, teachers, and parents working together to create policy. Finally, to ensure the social, emotional, and cognitive development of essential learning skills for a healthy democracy, the arts, sports, culturally relevant content and pedagogy, and portfolio based assessments must be incorporated in a well-rounded curriculum.
Again, these decisions are made at the local level with guidance and funding from states and federal constituencies as needed. If annual testing is to continue, it should be designed by teachers, begin in grade four, and be no longer that 4 hours per year (2 ELA, 2 Math). Ideally, I would propose grade span testing that occurs only in 4th and 7th grade, and invest the remaining money into professional development and whole child reform.
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