Committee for Children Blog

How States Are Ensuring That Every Student Succeeds (ESSA)


Every state and school district will be required to implement the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA,  beginning in federal FY 2018.  This law has opportunities for states to set their own accountability standards and for school districts to incorporate social-emotional learning in professional development and in the classroom; a recent meta-analysis shows an average increase of 13 percentile points in academic performance for students with SEL exposure over their non-SEL peers.  Here is a summary of implementation efforts and challenges to date.

Since former president Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law in December 2015, states have been working on formulating their ESSA implementation plans for U.S. Department of Education review and approval. As of July 2017, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans that are being closely reviewed by government and research and policy institutions.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has performed in-depth reviews of the 17 submitted plans focusing on three main questions: (1) How clear are school ratings for parents, educators, and the general public? (2) Do the plans push schools to focus on all students, not just those farthest behind? And (3) Are schools treated fairly, particularly those with a large share of students in poverty, and judged in part by academic growth, not just achievement? According to the Fordham Institute report, states are doing a satisfactory job—with some caveats—in addressing these components in their plans. Another assessment highlights the good news about ESSA plans but points out there are many “opportunities for improvement.”

States that submitted plans appear to have expanded their accountability systems beyond the traditional math and reading assessments, to include indicators for science, physical education, art, and school climate, allowing for a much more holistic approach to measuring student success. Some states have included an indicator showing their success moving students into college and career. Additionally, all 17 plans have shifted student success measurements away from a single point in time to year-to-year growth in order to assess student progress over time.

While ESSA encourages states to create state-level accountability systems, many states have aimed only to comply with the bare minimum requirements of federal law, often using the same definitions listed in the law. This approach could raise questions about states’ ability to establish and successfully implement accountability requirements or simply might be a function of the time needed to agree on and implement change. New Mexico and Tennessee are the only two states that have explicit plans to use federal funds to boost student achievement, increase options for students, or intervene in chronically low-performing schools.

In addition to government agencies and researchers and policy analysts, other organizations have been closely following ESSA implementation. These include educational technology and social-emotional learning organizations that can help schools address new opportunities under the law.  For example, education technology organizations have identified areas where increasing technology in the classroom provides efficient ways for schools to meet ESSA requirements. These include using digital tools and platforms meant to increase schools’ ability to track student achievement and communicate with parents. Advocates say technology could help schools meet the law’s requirements to engage parents—but only if districts are careful to apply technology in meaningful ways. According to a Columbia University study, schools that sent text messages with academic updates to parents lowered course failure by 38 percent, a powerful way for many schools to support student success and improve graduation rates. Johns Hopkins University has constructed a powerful online resource called Evidence for ESSA that organizes digital math and reading tools that best align with ESSA standards and ranks these products based on the success of studies and research that has been done on the programs, allowing schools to find research-based tools that are best made to fit their student demographics.

ESSA has the power to be a saving force for many at-risk students, especially those who are homeless. In the 2014–2015 school year, 1.3 million students (or 2.5 percent) were homeless in the public school system; these 1.3 million students contribute to the staggering 30 percent of all school-age children living in extreme poverty. Of the five states that currently report graduation rates for homeless students, all have found that homeless students have lower graduation rates than those of low income but housed students. New ESSA requirements now require explicit support for homeless students by mandating that state and local education agencies focus on creating plans for homeless student success, including early education opportunities, connection to essential services, and postsecondary education guidance.

While ESSA no longer has “highly qualitied” teacher mandates, states must now establish definitions of “ineffective teachers” in their plans and ensure low-income students are not experiencing a disproportionate number of them. What qualifies as an ineffective teacher varies from state to state but can range from lack of experience or credentials to inadequate test scores.  Most state ESSA plans that have been submitted failed to define “ineffective teacher” and the steps that would be taken to safeguard students and address disparities.