Hailed as a bipartisan success by Washington, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act lays down a new blueprint to further de-professionalize American education.
The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was put into effect by President Lyndon Johnson. That act merely provided block-grant funds to states to support education for handicapped and at-risk students. There was no attempt to drive curricula from Washington. Before that time, the federal involvement in education was limited to data generation by the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Federal interference with the states’ responsibility for schooling essentially began with President George W. Bush, who brought his No Child Left Behind strategy from Texas. Since education is a state’s right, he used the growing amount of federal money issued to states under Title programs to extort compliance with No Child Left Behind, a system designed to label school districts and teachers as failures and turn schools into test-prep factories.
It is important to remember that when NCLB was authorized, it also was hailed as a strong bipartisan action, bringing together Ted Kennedy with conservative Republicans.
But in this column nearly a decade-and-a-half ago, I condemned NCLB as a disastrous attack on teacher professionalism. I compared the requirement that schools have all students proficient by 2014 to a requirement that hospitals and doctors would have all patients survive. Today, even the education newspaper of record, Education Week, admits NCLB is now universally despised.
Enough NCLB damage had accumulated by the 2008 presidential elections that many citizens hoped President Barack Obama would work to overthrow NCLB. Instead, under Secretary Arne Duncan, the “Race to the Top” was “NCLB on steroids,” according to Chester Finn, who served in the Bush administration as assistant secretary of education. With virtually all schools failing the absurd requirement to have students 100-percent proficient, these last years have seen massive state waivers. Today’s act does not replace NCLB as much as it replaces Duncan’s untenable waiver system.
The Every Student Succeeds Act alters the federal role, shifting some but not all curricular control back to states. But it is also packed with special interests and a disdain for teachers and teacher-training institutions. States will have to measure “students’ opportunity to learn.” States will have to develop accountability systems and report out more subgroups. States will have to include English-language proficiency in their reporting and still will have to identify and address the bottom 5 percent of schools.
However, the most serious problems center on the ESSA’s continued disdain for professionally trained teachers. ESSA promotes alternate route teacher preparation academies; that is, non-university programs. This diverts some teacher training to programs run by non-profits, such as Teach For America, where most new teachers soon move to other fields. And Kansas superintendents already have experience with other “fast track” alternate-route programs where most perform poorly in the classroom. But ESSA continues to usurp state authority by mandating these alternate-route teachers would be paid more: “at least the equivalent of a master’s degree in education for the purpose of hiring, retention, compensation and promotion in the state.” The feds have absolutely no jurisdiction to determine what salaries states should pay teachers, another example of how ESSA continues the federal NCLB overreach. And the sole criteria for judging teacher competency continues to be student test scores.
Bringing these test-prep rookies into the classroom at a masters-level salary that well-trained regular route teachers will not reach for six or more years will really depress teacher morale even further. And for school districts nationwide, it will raise the cost of hiring such teachers.
While ESSA ends a few of the problems of NCLB, it creates a whole new disaster.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.