John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, appraises the new law called “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). 
He writes: 

Here’s another submittal if you like it.

As educators rush to understand the actual wording of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we must ask the far more important question of what the new law really means. In education (as in most of life?) it is the music, not just the lyrics, that really communicates. The first question is how systems will interpret not just the letter of the law but also the thrust of the ESSA. Equally important is how educators respond to managements’ interpretations of its accountability provisions. In doing so, we should keep the history of the NCLB Act of 2002 in mind, and not repeat the devastating mistakes caused by a decade and a half of test, sort, reward, and punish education malpractice.


On the eve of NCLB, Oklahoma City had adopted its opposite – a humane, science-based school reform policy that emphasized collaboration, early education, engaging instruction, and the use of test scores as a diagnostic tool, not an end in itself. This was the result of a bipartisan coalition, MAPS for Kids. As explained in my A Teacher’s Tale, we agreed that education was too important to be left to the bureaucracy; it must be a transparent, cooperative, community effort. NCLB empowered top-down micromanaging and playing games with data by persons who were distant from both the community and classroom realities.


I had been a team player in MAPS for Kids and I searched for common ground with NCLB. I was frustrated that education scholars seemed to be implacably opposed to the law, even though the American Federation of Teachers and most teachers initially gave it cautious support. My brain told me that NCLB was inherently wrongheaded, but I cherry-picked reasons to be optimistic. Before long, I could not avoid the same conclusion as virtually every classroom teacher who I have ever known. I can’t think of another issue which created as much unanimity among diverse practitioners as the law’s testing provisions did. As crazy as it sounds, NCLB was so ill-conceived that I don’t recall a single teacher who did not eventually reject it.


I first assumed that the education sector would make the same half-hearted effort to implement NCLB as it had typically done with previous quick fixes that were disconnected from reality. The best case scenario, which I knew was unlikely, would be to pretend to comply with NCLB; take the law=s money and spend it according to our own consciences; and then claim to have raised student performance. It seemed inconceivable, however, that school systems would do the complete opposite and actually try to meet its mandate for bringing 100% of students to proficiency in twelve years.


The best thing about NCLB, potentially, was that it was riddled with loopholes. Even its bizarre AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) goals were a charade, and schools could utilize the loophole of Safe Harbor, or increasing student performance by 10%. When schools failed to meet their impossible goals (and Safe Harbor could do no more than delay that inevitability) they could choose the AOther@ option for reorganization. In other words, the district had to do no more than officially close a school, change the name on its marquee, reshuffle the desks, and claim to have a new reorganized school. 


The law only had two sets of teeth. First, it would result in a series of headlines about failing schools. Second, the people who had the least power over instruction, central office administrators, were most likely to be crucified for the sins of an entire system. Teachers were mostly protected by union contracts, but administrators would be helpless. Consequently, they had to make sure that the patient didn’t die on their operating tables. 


In 2002, I was invited to join a state committee setting guidelines for AYP. I also was asked to write a memo about Ohio=s AYP proposal. Given the state’s importance in the upcoming 2004 election, it was assumed that it would be given the most leeway in meeting student achievement goals. Ohio had been approved for the Aballoon mortgage@ AYP where it did not have to raise performance goals during the first three years. Then their schools would face a big leap, but afterwards the goals would not be raised for the next three years, and so on. I studied the Ohio details and prepared arguments in favor of Oklahoma adopting a similar proposal. I even drafted a sound bite on why the Ohio plan was educationally as well as politically smart, but I could not deliver it with a straight face. I tried not to grin, but every administrator in the room seemed to know we were dealing with a sick joke of a law.


When Oklahoma superintendents and state officials candidly discussed NCLB implementation, USDOE visitors from Ohio kept their poker faces during the entire meeting. If NCLB survived, all of our schools would be declared failures. We were told by top officials that the best tactic would be to adopt the Ohio AYP and kick the can down the road in the hope that Republican governors in the West would come to our rescue and change NCLB. 


Over the next few years, my school system faced a tug of war between loyalty to the patrons who voted for the MAPS for Kids approach, which sought to create collaborative and respectful learning environments, and obeying NCLB’s mandates that virtually assured worksheet-driven drill and kill. Until a superintendent from the corporate reform Broad Academy was hired in 2007, teach-to-the-test did not become a completely overwhelming force. On the other hand, other NCLB metrics were as harmful as bubble-in accountability. And, this could be a lesson we should learn in terms of ESSA, which steps back from specific test-driven mandates. Systems will be tempted to make up silly new metrics in the name of accountability. (Or worse, they may try to grade kids and/or systems on “grit” and/or other “mindset measures.”)


Under NCLB, only about 20% or so of teachers were held directly accountable for meeting test score growth targets (that usually were ridiculous.) In the inner city, however, it was accountability goals that seemed valid to non-educators that could derail whole school improvements. In our situation, impossible mandates for increasing attendance and graduation rates created a host of negative results. 


In my school, MAPS had energized holistic efforts to address truancy and provide the mentorship, counseling, and encouragement for students to remain on track to graduation. We were seeing steady and hard-earned progress. When the system faced targets that were humanly impossible, however, battling the real problems became a secondary issue. The new job #1 was manufacturing miraculous data. Our only option was creating computer codes that allowed for (legally) making absences disappear from the records. Similarly, we created “credit recovery” programs that students derided as “exercising the right-click finger.” “Passing students on” and “juking the stats” became the priority. 


During the first few years of NCLB, Oklahoma City educators balanced the need to play statistical games in order to produce obviously false statistics with the struggle to actually provide better opportunities for our students. By the time Arne Duncan took of the USDOE in 2009, school improvement had been completely subordinated. But, Duncan put the worst of NCLB testing on steroids and the damage was made far, far worse. That is a story which is fresh in our minds, however. The lessons from the Duncan/Gates/Billionaires Boys Club tragedy of the last seven years are topics for other posts.


They key lesson for me is that the new embodiment of the ESSA is like the NCLB version in that it does not include nearly as much federal micromanaging as we have recently endured. Many administrators and political leaders will be closely watching which ways the edu-political winds blow. In contrast to the last few years of corporate reform, the new law doesn’t mandate specific absurdities such as value-added teacher evaluations and the creation of even more ridiculous accountability metrics for non-tested subjects. But, neither did NCLB. No longer will there be federal incentives for state laws that require students to be denied a high school diploma or even promotion to the 3rd grade based on not-ready-for-prime-time college readiness tests. But, neither did NCLB.


We must make it clear that the Opt Out movement, and our political and legal opposition to test-driven reform will continue. Democratic presidential candidates must understand that teachers won’t take this abuse anymore. We will ramp up the fight against mass school closures in the inner city. Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the other social engineers – as well as the politicians they fund – must know that educators and patrons are fed up with their technocracy. The new ESSA may not have killed their experimentation on our children, but neither will it slow our counter-attack against test-driven, competition-driven accountability.