Lancer Letter – Every Student Succeeds

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

No Child Left Behind has been left behind. On December 10, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB. Essentially, Congress figured out what every educator knew in 2002 when NCLB went into effect – the reach and detail of the NCLB law was unworkable.

Student raising hand with questionBefore I highlight some of the new aspects of the ESSA, a quick review of the federal government’s role in education is in order. Constitutionally, education is the duty of the states, not the federal government. The federal government stayed out of public education until the late 50s and 60s. At that time, it was believed that the federal government should become involved in education to protect minority rights. Federal laws to protect students with handicaps, ethnic minorities and students from low socio-economic background became prevalent. The federal government started funding school lunches, reading programs and some special education. The No Child Left Behind Law was the most intrusive federal education law ever as it impacted ALL students, not just those in special populations. I find this interesting given that NCLB was the hallmark of a Republican president when Republicans typically show disdain for too much government involvement.

Just to give some perspective on federal involvement, only 2% of General McLane revenues come from the federal government. That equates to $777, 815.00 which are earmarked for struggling readers, special education and technology training. It does not come close, though, to covering the full cost of those programs. For example, we spend roughly 3.6 million on special education, far in excess of the $332,880.00 we receive in federal dollars. We also receive subsidies for the school lunch program but that pays for lunches and breakfasts for low socio-economic students and again, it doesn’t cover the whole program. For this small 2% of funding, we inherit about 60% of mandates, regulations and rules we must deal with.

In my fantasy world, I would tell the federal government to keep their money and free us from some of their many onerous requirements. But, I digress.

The ESSA intends to decrease the emphasis and time spent on testing. There will still be the state testing program (PSSAs and Keystone Exams) but Pennsylvania will be free to set the targets for success and to develop a system for holding schools accountable to those targets. Under NCLB, the targets and “punishments” for not meeting them were specified, though never enforced. Pennsylvania may choose to change nothing and continue the testing program that is now part of state law. To make changes, the legislature has to act and we know how that is going with the state budget. I know the present administration would like to make the system more workable but they will need Republican approval in the legislature.

The ESSA supposedly puts an emphasis on career readiness as well as college readiness. Many educators felt that NCLB put too much emphasis on academics alone and exacerbated the “skills gap” and need for skilled workers. Again, it will be up to the states how to do this. In my opinion, which is shared by the PA Secretary of Education, we can accomplish this by offering multiple paths to graduation. Allow students to graduate who show competence on the Keystone Exam OR the Workkeys assessment OR the NOCTI exam OR any number of other proven assessments that test more than rote knowledge.

There are some new items included in the ESSA law. Pre-School (and more federal dollars for it) is a new addition. It also includes teacher and leader evaluation and support systems, a competitive program for innovation and evidence-building, a competitive program to replicate high-quality charter schools, and a competitive program to encourage wrap-around support-systems for vulnerable communities. It will take awhile before we know what that all means as the voluminous legislation requires several months for bureaucrats to translate the law into regulations.

Some groups have already come out in opposition to the ESSA. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette, the Education Law Center and the D.C. Based Advancement project worry that “without federal oversight . . . the schools in Pennsylvania can overlook the needs of educationally vulnerable students.” They apparently liked the “accountability” in the old NCLB program. Problem is, it didn’t work.

Author David Price says, “accountability is what we have when we don’t have trust.” The ESSA gives back to the states the freedom to develop their accountability systems. Let’s start trusting our educators again and develop a system that is sane and workable.

The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion.

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