NCLB Gives Way to ESSA: What Does It Mean for K-12 Publishers?
At the end of 2015, Democrats and Republicans in Congress surprised nearly everyone by coming together to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. This law, which replaced what was known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, embodies the federal government’s education policies and sets guidelines for billions of dollars in federal spending. Given its impact, it’s worth asking how ESSA will be different from NCLB and what the new law will mean for education publishers.
The short answer is it’s hard to know, and it will take a while for the law’s full effects to be felt. That said, some of what will happen under ESSA is clear, and we can make predictions about its potential impact on schools and how it will affect publishers of the materials used in classrooms. (As for why Congress loves acronyms so much and keeps giving laws names that set goals they can’t achieve — well, those are different questions we can’t answer.)
It might help to start with some background information. About 90% of school funding comes from state and local sources, so the federal government is actually not the biggest funder of U.S. schools. The 10% or so it does provide, however, makes a big difference on the margin. This is especially true because of the carrot-and-stick approach the federal government tends to use to get state and local education officials to do what it wants.
NCLB — which, technically, was the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed in in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” — was partly responsible for the increased emphasis on testing that has characterized our schools over the last decade or so. Signed into law by President Bush in 2002, NCLB required that students be tested in math and English every year between grades 3 and 8, and once again in high school, and it held districts accountable for the students’ performance. Districts whose students performed poorly faced a series of federally mandated remedial actions. Without going into the specifics, it’s fair to say that districts and teachers worked very hard to avoid these sanctions.
The high-stakes testing implemented under NCLB had a number of unintended consequences. Because students were tested in English and math but not in other subjects, it caused many schools to de-emphasize social studies and science, especially at the elementary level where students don’t have different teachers for different subjects. It also exacerbated the process of “teaching to the test,” creating an environment (in some places) in which educators and students alike were more often concerned about students’ test scores than what the children actually learned.
The passage of ESSA, which President Obama signed the day after it cleared the Senate, was to some degree a reaction to the backlash against high-stakes testing. It also reflected a desire by some legislators to reduce the federal government’s footprint in local schools.
So what’s actually different about ESSA? The final bill was 1,061 pages long, so it’s a challenge to summarize it succinctly, but here are some highlights:
- The testing regimen remains in place, but states are now free to set their own goals for school performance.
- States will have more leeway than before in setting the metrics to evaluate whether districts meet their performance goals, and states will now be responsible for designing the interventions to be implemented in the lowest-performing districts
- Districts will be allowed (with state permission) to use nationally recognized tests such as the SAT and ACT to assess their high school students’ achievement
- ESSA requires states to adopt “challenging” academic standards, which could be the Common Core standards but don’t have to be. The U.S. Secretary of Education, however, is not allowed to force — or even encourage — states to pick a specific set of standards such as the Common Core. (This last point reflects a compromise between the various factions arguing over the Common Core, which is too convoluted to try to capture here.)
The new law won’t fully kick in until the 2017-18 school year, but its provisions are clear enough that we can draw some high-level conclusions about it. For example:
- Power is moving away from the federal level toward states and local districts, which are likely to use their new-found autonomy to implement a wider variety of educational approaches and solutions. This suggests that schools will end up buying a more diverse array of materials and will begin to re-emphasize subjects other than English and math. In fact, ESSA includes language defining a “Well-Rounded Education” that includes not only traditional academic subjects but also music and the arts.
- Giving districts permission to use SAT and/or ACT tests means, in essence, that the districts that choose to do so will be assessing their high schoolers’ college-readiness instead of their mastery of whatever curriculum standards are in place. It follows, then, that these districts might adjust their curricula accordingly, which should create new opportunities both for curriculum materials providers and for providers of test prep materials.
Another aspect of ESSA with clear implications for publishers — worrisome ones, at that — is that the law expressly allows states and local education agencies to use block grant money to develop or acquire open educational resources (OER), more commonly known as “free stuff.” OER is sometimes defined as resources available under licenses that allow their free use, remix and sharing by others. For whatever reason, the federal government has jumped on the “content wants to be free” bandwagon, at least when it comes to content designed for classroom use.
There’s a gap between the ideal of an OER-driven world in which schools don’t have to pay for content and the reality of OER, which educators often find is poorly curated, uneven in quality, and lacks the kinds of support materials that K-12 publishers generally provide. Still, OER has a lot of money behind it, and OER materials keep getting better. From a publisher’s perspective, the support ESSA provides for OER is distinctly unhelpful.
In summary, there’s a lot for publishers to like about ESSA, since over time it is likely to increase the diversity of approaches, solutions and — most important for publishers — materials to be used in the nation’s classrooms. But the new law will be good for publishers only if books and copyrighted digital materials — the kind that school districts are willing to pay for — retain their primacy as the vehicles we use to educate our children.