The Every Student Succeeds Act is important and long-overdue federal education legislation. But what will it mean in an actual classroom, to an actual teacher, under the Donald Trump Administration? What should I anticipate coming across the bridge from Congress to my classroom?
The first thing I can tell you is that we teachers are certainly not in "receive mode," waiting for marching orders, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to think.
The congressional reauthorization of the nation’s main public education K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA), will eventually arrive in my classroom as “Rules I Have To Follow.” Yet, we could be years away from knowing what the ESSA will bring. That’s because education policy is like the worst game of telephone ever. Here’s how.
- Actual law is passed by Congress.
- Vague and occasionally contradictory laws are turned into rules and regulations by the Department of Education.
- State Departments of Education decide what they think all the laws, rules, and regulations mean.
- Laws, rules, and regulations are explained to local districts by state officials.
- Local school districts are taught how to comply with laws, rules and regulations by consultants, college professors, and low-level education bureaucrats (there is significant overlap between these three groups).
- Superintendent of local school district decides how to interpret everything he’s been told.
- School principal decides what he thinks that means for his people.
Any of these stages are subject to do-overs as people in positions change (we are in the middle of a massive do-over of Step two because we’ve switched Presidents).
In addition, at every level the “Responsible Parties” will be making distinctions between what they feel schools should do because they are “right,” and things we have to do or else there could be scary consequences for noncompliance.
By the time the law arrives in my classroom, it is a fifteenth-generation copy. Some of the copiers will clearly be low on toner, and every once in awhile someone will have underscored in sharpie the parts he or she thought important.
As a classroom teacher, you can find it useful and helpful to educate yourself about the long twisty journey of the law to your classroom. On the other hand, arguing with your administration that the law doesn’t say what they think it does can be futile and frustrating. Ultimately, in the classroom we deal with real, live humans. And so the lofty aspirations of No Child Left Behind, EESA’s predecessor, in many cases became the directive to math teachers, “You must teach all of your students calculus.”
Sometimes the laws vanish completely. The law has said for years now that each state must identify its best teachers and move them to its neediest schools, but since it’s impossible to force teachers into particular schools, the rule has been universally ignored. For classroom teachers, the most influential part of NCLB under Bush was heard as, “Get every child to score well on the Big Standardized Test, or something bad will happen.”
Under the Obama Administration, that was tweaked to, “Get every child to score well on the Big Standardized Test, or something bad will happen to you.”
Teachers waited to see if ESSA would pull the rug out from under Test-Centered Mis-education. It didn’t. We waited to see if it would pull the rug out from under Bad Standards Designed By Amateurs. It didn’t. We waited to see if ESSA would throw its weight behind more useful and fair evaluation of teachers. It didn’t. It just said that states could change things up a little if they wanted to.
But that change will take a while to come—and things could get worse rather than better. Meanwhile, the mandatory BS Test is still in place, so if states want to use some sort of data for teacher evaluation, the data, bad as it is, is right there at hand.
That’s because over the past decade high stakes testing, teacher evaluations based on it, top-down standards, and all the other things that were supposed to bust up the status quo have now become the status quo. They have inertia on their side, and ESSA is not much of an inertia-buster.
One of the few things that ESSA did accomplish was to empower Step 3 above. That means that what ESSA means in my classroom will be affected by what the Pennsylvania legislature decides they think should happen. But I left one last step off the list, and it is perhaps the most important of all.
8. Teacher closes door and tries to do what she believes is educationally sound—at least as much of it as she can get away with.
If you think we’re sitting out here saying, “Boy, I’m just waiting for the politicians and bureaucrats to tell me how to do my job,” well—I have a bridge to sell you.