This past December, President Obama signed into law the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). ESSA marks a shift in control. The federal government is returning control of public education back to state governments. In contrast to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESSA’s predecessor, states, districts, and schools will determine their own accountability measures, policymaking decisions and performance standards. There have been mixed reactions to this new legislature. For example, some people hope that ESSA will bring about less standardized testing while others, such as Diane Ravitch, believe that it is still too similar to NCLB and will not usher in the change that public education needs. It is important to note that this is a rather simplified description of a complicated and multifaceted new law.
In researching ESSA, I was shocked to find only a few mainstream news articles about this new legislation. I honestly believe that if I were not in two education policy courses this semester, I would not know what ESSA was at all. Most of the information I found either came from federal sites or from education blog posts. The few articles I could find on ESSA are rather generalized descriptions of what the bill entails or they focus mostly on the role of standardized testing in ESSA. I became increasingly frustrated because I was particularly interested in learning more about the LEARN part of the legislation, yet I could find very little written about it.
LEARN stands for Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation. This program is designed to improve students’ academic achievement in reading and writing by providing federal support to develop, revise or update literacy instruction plans. It focuses specifically on low-income and high-needs students and provides professional development opportunities for teachers, literacy specialists, English as a second language specialists and administrators. The LEARN act includes $190 million for states to receive for the 2016 fiscal year. As outlined in an Education Week blog post;
“Under LEARN, states and districts must allocate no less than 15 percent of those funds for students ages 0 to 5, no less than 40 percent of funds for students in kindergarten through 5th grades, and no less than 40 percent for students in 6th through 12th grades.”
With the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing that only 36 percent of fourth-grade and 34 percent of eight-grade students are performing at or above the “Proficient level in NAEP reading,” there is an obvious need to emphasize literacy in public schools. As I looked for more information about LEARN and the potential benefits it will bring to the classroom, I wondered why I could find very little information about it outside of education blogs. Literacy instruction is incredibly important, but I suppose it is not quite glamorous enough for mainstream media.
I was particularly surprised to find little coverage of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program, authorized in the new bill. This particular program allows the Education Secretary to “award grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, on a competitive basis” to promote literacy programs in low-income areas, including “developing and enhancing effective school library programs.” Budgets for school libraries have decreased significantly in the past decade and so the ability to now develop effective school library programs is a very exciting change. Looking back at my elementary education, going to the school library and perusing the shelves upon shelves of books was a formative part of my education experience. It is incredibly important that students have strong library programs in their schools, yet based on mainstream media coverage the cuts to library programs, as well as the new support for these programs, do not seem to be issues that the public feels passionately about.
ESSA is poised to make significant changes in public education across the country. From the role of standardized tests to increased funding for libraries, this bill is addressing pertinent and pressing issues in current education policy. However, it seems to me that people who are not directly involved in education are not aware of such significant changes. ESSA was signed because there are major problems in public education that need to be addressed, but its signing also highlights a bigger societal problem. The coverage and response to ESSA makes it seem like education policy is not necessarily a national problem that the general public should be aware of or follow passionately. As evidence by the limited discussion of K-12 education in the current presidential race, where GOP candidates have discussed education just 11 times in 14 debates, such issues are not predominately in the forefront of the American public’s conscience. The implementation of ESSA and the problems it addresses should be a hot topic issue, yet it seems like many people still need to learn about this new development in education policy.