The U.S. Department of Education’s shift from the compliance and sanctions of “No Child Left Behind” to the capacity-building and support of the recently passed “Every Student Succeeds” Act (ESSA) bodes well for the advancement of creative educational designs and safeguards for equity-focused accountability under Title I.
To underscore our endorsement for this K–12 student-centered approach to teaching and education, AISR was one of 26 signatories to a recent letter to Acting Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., urging the Department of Education (ED) to adopt regulations that further promote equity and democratic values in educational practices and outcomes and highlighting the central role that educators and communities play in strengthening the essential public good.
The signatories represented a range of foundations, education associations, and education policy organizations, including the William & Flora Hewitt Foundation, the National Public Education Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the Southern Education Foundation, and the Education Justice Network.
The letter, which was in response to the ED’s call for feedback on ways that regulations can help states, school districts, and schools implement programs under ESSA, articulated a number of recommendations. Chief among them were:
- A high degree of transparency, particularly around the nature and level of the achievement gap separating high- and low-performing students;
- Accountability matched with actionable data;
- A recognition that true readiness for college success, career, and civic life requires a blend of academic and non-academic knowledge, skills, and aptitude, fostered by sufficient opportunities in schools and the broader community; and
- An understanding that it is these intertwined competencies that must capture school systems’ focus and attention.
Guided by these principles, the coalition encouraged the ED to support innovation that promotes student-centered approaches to learning – personalized, competency-based study in and outside traditional school structures and times, as well as opportunities for students to participate in curriculum design.
It is our belief that equity requires – if not demands – not only access to a high quality education, but engagement in a form of learning that is consistent with democratic principles and practices, and which depends on shared responsibility. Education should equip all students with a deep understanding of academic content that prepares them to problem solve; think critically and creatively; communicate and collaborate in multiple ways; develop ideas, solutions, and products; and manage learning in a world of rapid change and knowledge expansion.
In a string of recent speeches, it was promising to hear Secretary King emphasize that equity for all students is an imperative as the states form their respective accountability systems:
“ESSA presents a moment of both opportunity and moral responsibility,” he said in a speech to civil rights advocates on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The “new and larger role for states should be seen as a clarion call in the civil rights community.”
ESSA still requires that states pay heed to the lowest performing schools, as well as schools where historically underserved students, such as English language learners, are not performing well. However, since the revised law also permits states to develop their own set of evaluation metrics, there’s a concern that districts could obscure the gaps between low-income students and students of color and their more advantaged peers. Secretary King also addressed that issue:
“There’s an opportunity for states to adopt accountability systems that are equity-advancing, but there’s also risk those new indicators will be used to distract from core [questions] of whether or not schools are delivering on their responsibility to educate students,” he stated in recent remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We need to make sure that states are aggressive . . . in trying to support the schools that are struggling the most.”
We believe the new ESSA offers great promise for advancing education practices to meet 21st-century needs; however, it is essential that the gap between isolated innovation within specific provisions of the law, and the creation of a broader framework that supports communities working with their school system to build high-quality education in every aspect defined by federal guidance is bridged. Furthermore, equity must be central to all aspects of the law, including the definition of standards, accountability, assessments, educator development, and system capacity building.
Reality has often failed to live up to the ideal of equal educational opportunity. Most notably, the corrosive effects of continued segregation and chronic underfunding of urban schools have denied education to millions of African Americans, and gaps in opportunities still remain substantial between schools that serve advantaged students and those that serve their less-advantaged counterparts. And yet, sustained efforts toward equitable education reform over the past few decades clearly show that many Americans remain committed to creating a public education system that serves all students well.
The Department’s early signals offer hope; obviously, the true test will be whether the actual implementation of the regulations reflect the Secretary’s statements in support of equity.
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