After NCLB: A look at the Every Student Succeeds Act

Alyssa Pressler
  • The state Department of Education will move forward with planning for ESSA, despite the incoming administration.
  • ESSA was bipartisan, though Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos have not shared their thoughts on the statute.
  • ESSA will replace No Child Left Behind and return control to states and local school districts.

In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind and the strict standards many districts struggled to meet.

It's now up to a new administration to roll out the new accountability program, and that has some wondering what the act will look like under President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Students eat lunch at Logos Academy in York City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

No Child Left Behind was the nation's primary means of measuring school accountability. It required every student in the country be proficient, which means performing at grade level, in math and reading by 2014. The law, which went into effect in 2002, increased the percentage of students who should be scoring proficient incrementally each year.

As the standards continued to increase, it became obvious that schools would never achieve 100 percent of students scoring proficiently on standardized tests, so in 2012, Obama began to allow states to opt out of the law. A bipartisan effort to replace No Child Left Behind was begun, and ESSA was the result. ESSA gives states and school districts more control over how they measure student success, so each state must submit a plan of how they will do so.

Since ESSA was signed into law in December 2015, the U.S. Department of Education has been working to propose final regulations and guidance for states to implement ESSA. Over the past several months, the DOE has released regulation drafts and received pushback from lawmakers who complained that the regulations didn't give states enough control, but in November, final regulations were released.

While Beth Olanoff, special assistant to state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and a leader on discussions for ESSA, explained that the regulations could be revoked by Congress under a congressional review act, which would need to be signed by the president, she said there's enough in the statute itself to continue moving forward.

Additionally, she's not too worried about the future of ESSA because the statute itself was a bipartisan effort, even though Trump and DeVos have not mentioned their thoughts on ESSA.

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a rally, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

"We were creating plans before ESSA was passed, so whether Congress revokes the regulations or not, we're proceeding," Olanoff said.

What is ESSA? With the state Department of Education moving forward with ESSA, it's important to understand what makes it different from No Child Left Behind.

The main thing that will change under ESSA is states and school districts will have more of a say when it comes to measuring and regulating education. According to information provided on the department's website and shared on its ESSA tour around Pennsylvania, states will need to come up with their own measures for school success and put into place their own strategies for providing support for lower-performing schools. These plans will ultimately be approved by the federal Department of Education.

"Under No Child Left Behind, which was the predecessor, the federal government told you what to do with a lowest performing school," Olanoff said. "That's gone now under ESSA, and we have to develop our own strategy."

She said the state Department of Education had been working on these strategies before ESSA was passed. It plans to follow a similar recovery plan for low-performing schools that was implemented by the York City School District, which has been in financial recovery for several years. A holistic approach was taken for the district's recovery plan, focusing on improving academics, student life and finances.

The district's chief recovery officer, Carol Saylor, said the state DOE made a unique change when approaching the district's recovery: It started with a diagnostic assessment made by Mass Insight Education, a third-party assessor. She thought the diagnostic test also was important and should be used moving forward so the state can tailor interventions to each school building or district that is performing poorly.

York City School District’s Chief Recovery Officer Carol Saylor. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Nicole Reigelman, press secretary and communications director for the state DOE, said the diagnostic test would be used moving forward.

"This is a significant departure from No Child Left Behind, which skipped over identification of the specific underlying causes of failing schools and jumped straight to imposition of specific interventions that mostly involved changing school leadership and/or governance," she said in an email response.

Olanoff said the state has been working on the Future Ready PA Index, which might eventually replace the School Performance Profile scores that are given to each school building in the state to determine growth. The index would focus less on standardized test scores when calculating a school's performance score and more on college or career readiness.

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This index, if approved in the next few months, should align with ESSA in measuring school success and identifying low-performing schools, she said.

Finally, ESSA might give school districts more flexibility when deciding how to spend Titles I, II and IV funding, all of which come from the federal government. Title I funding works to close the learning gap between students with low-income backgrounds and others, Title II funding is for increasing teacher effectiveness, and Title IV funding is supposed to go toward ensuring well-rounded education.

Under No Child Left Behind, there were very strict regulations on what this money could be spent on, Olanoff said. For example, Title II funding could only be spent on core subjects. Under ESSA, Title II funding could be spent on encouraging teacher effectiveness in art or might encourage crossovers among tech education and core subjects.

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"Local districts will have more discretion than they've ever had, and they have to thoughtfully figure out how to spend this money," Olanoff said.

This individuality between states and school districts will be better than No Child Left Behind, in Saylor's opinion.

"I think that's a good thing because the federal government can't realistically create regulations that apply to all 50 states," Saylor said.

York Suburban School District Superintendent Shelly Merkle agreed with Olanoff, saying the law still puts a focus on student successes but gives educators more control on how to measure that.

York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle

"ESSA is a good thing," she said. "It brings more control to the state and local levels. I believe schools are better equipped to know the needs of the community and the students."

What's next? ESSA will be implemented by the 2017-18 school year, but Olanoff said there's still plenty of work to be done. The state will submit its individual plan for ESSA in September, but before then there are a lot of discussions to be had.

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In January the Pennsylvania Department of Education wrapped up its ESSA public tour, which stopped at places such as Erie, Pittsburgh and Lock Haven. During the tour, representatives shared information on ESSA and gathered feedback. Though the tour has ended, Olanoff said the department will still be seeking feedback through the summer.

Additionally, the Education Department is working on strategies to ensure it has parent and student feedback on the state plan. At any point, residents of Pennsylvania can send questions or feedback to

Once the state Education Department has drafted its state plan, it will need to be approved by Gov. Tom Wolf before being sent to the U.S. Department of Education for final approval.

What changes the Trump administration and DeVos might bring to the law's regulations remain to be seen, but educators such as Saylor and Merkle appear comfortable with ESSA and moving forward. Merkle did admit some concern about what an administration favoring school choice could mean for public schools such as York Suburban.

"I think there are concerns with what changes may be made with any new administration," she said. "At the same time, we must all be patient and give the new administration the opportunity to demonstrate their support for education."