ESSA and the Coming Era of Education Innovation

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is no more. NCLB set federal K-12 education policy for the past 12 years and was replaced last week when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law on December 10, 2015. Immediately after passage of the bill in the Senate, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said that he expects the new law to usher in an age of innovation and excellence. These four provisions in ESSA make me optimistic that he is right:

Innovation. The law includes a new competitive grant competition called the Education Innovation and Research program. Similar to the existing Investing in Innovation program, the new program provides tiered grants which will support the testing and replication of education strategies that have been shown to improve student achievement. Programs with more evidence qualify for more funding.

Evidence. ESSA includes the term “evidence-based” over 60 times. ESSA defines ‘evidence-based’ as a strategy or intervention that “shows a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes.” It also provides four tiers of standards that program providers can use to assess the strength of the evidence that supports a particular strategy.

Accountability. Each state will now be responsible for creating a school accountability and assessment system that includes more than just test scores. This will allow the use of new indicators that can provide a much more comprehensive, nuanced view of what is happening inside a school. It will also raise the profile of other important school success metrics, such as teacher engagement, school climate, and student completion of advanced coursework.

School Turnaround. Under NCLB, low-performing school districts were required to use one of four federally-approved turnaround models. This approach proved overly prescriptive and Congress has been clamoring for more flexibility. ESSA gives schools the flexibility to use whatever evidence-based model is most appropriate for their needs.

The rollback of federal power, combined with a commitment to using approaches and interventions that are supported by evidence, has the potential to truly transform the education landscape in our country. Of course, this new flexibility for states and districts to chart their own course comes with profound responsibility. There is plenty of ambiguity in the new law that will require state and local education leaders to rise to the challenge that has been handed to them.

I hope Senator Alexander is right and the upcoming years are full of innovation and excellence. ESSA presents a tremendous opportunity to make great progress in improving educational achievement in this country and ensuring that, indeed, no child is left behind.