Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): Will the States Address the Role of Poverty in School Reform?

Summary: ESSA, the new federal education act, puts more authority in the hands of the states. Will (finally) the role and conditions of poverty be addressed in kids’ learning? Will old mistakes continue? Are well vetted approaches such as Richard DuFour’s Professional Learning Communities going to be enough?

NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is dead; out of the palace coup comes ESSA (quick, what does the acronym stand for?). Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunate label; sounds resoundingly bureaucratic; may it not beget such.

The feds under ESSA will continue to hold states and locales accountable for progress but allow latitude for the states to adopt, for example, academic standards of their choosing. The feds will still expect districts and states to identify lower performing schools but the nature of the remedy is at state discretion. In general, the act maintains federal expectation, but the states are less yoked to specificity from on fed high. Politically, ESSA is a federal bow to the states and is a victory for conservative small government folks, or is at least a shift in that direction.

One important political note: the feds are specifically forbidden to require that student testing results be used to evaluate teachers, though states may adopt such measures themselves.

The question of the hour is whether or not the states, now under a less oppressive shadow, will have learned sufficiently from the isolated progress and the general dead end that is the discomfiting legacy of NCLB; will the fed acknowledgment of defeat bloom fresh initiative by the liberated states?

There is worry. What is there to assure us that the rules promulgated by state bureaucracies will be any more generative than those of the feds? For example, academic standards might be watered down to mask insufficiency, as they were in some states under NCLB. School funding gains may languish in political committee.

On the ground level, a lot has been learned about curriculum, pedagogy, and the culture of schools that has been and will continue to be vital to reform; however, the academic skills of low income kids have been the sticking point all along. The tendency has been to scapegoat schools and teachers, but I would argue school malpractice has not been as singularly a liability as charged; other disablers inherent in poverty are playing out in schools, too often obscured by policy tunnel vision and hyper focus on school practice.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly: kids raised in poverty are subject to forces that leave too many of them vastly unprepared for school and doomed to blunted skills unless early conditions in their lives are improved. If creative initiatives do not address this issue directly, another fifteen years of stagnation will be the legacy.

The stresses of existence in poverty – the worries of food, of housing, of security, of health – have been demonstrated conclusively to slow the development of the frontal cortex in kids, where humans control behavior and emotions and grasp the significance of concepts. Lead levels poison young bodies and also affect cognitive maturation.

Poor parents love their kids no less than their middle class counterparts, but are besieged by putting a meal on the table, the elusiveness of stable housing, the worry of crime and violence, and the dearth of viable medical options or, better, of the option to seek preventive care. Distracted and without the knowledge and resources, they are less likely to interact with their kids in the enriching ways more common in middle class households. Their kids arrive on the school threshold less than ready for its demands.

The liabilities are circular and perpetuate themselves through generations. If we intend to improve low income kids’ test scores, the interventions needed are clear, beginning with early intervention in the kids’ and parents lives’. Quality early childhood education, support for new mothers, beginning in pregnancy. Good jobs and job training would be nice – hell, an all-out assault on poverty would be in the entire culture’s best interest, but early childhood intervention, as long as sustained over years, would be a signal start.

Tunnel thinking that ignores the role of poverty could compromise any ESSA inspired reset.

The power of vested interests within education, however reputable, can have the same effect. Take a look at one response to ESSA, specifically from the-well respected, much published and quite legitimate Richard DuFour, he of Professional Learning Community (PLC) fame.  He cautions correctly in a recent white paper that skill stagnation will continue if the states recycle some of the same punitive policies that arose out of No Child Left Behind.

As counter, he lays out a proposal that the route to progressive institutional change in schools lies through the PLC philosophy of ongoing teacher collaboration around improvement of curriculum and instruction, and strategies for reaching those students who do not meet proficiency requirements. This guy gets that teachers need time to collaborate in such a manner, and argues for less direct instruction in a teacher’s day. He puts the teacher front and center. Parenthetically, among other countries that whip our PISA derrière the Japanese and the Finns do just that.

Mr. DuFour earns my affection particularly in the way he insists in his book Whatever It Takes that resources be assigned in increasing density until a failing student becomes successful. That his laboratory is in a wealthy Chicago suburb does not dull the respect due his argument. Elements of his white paper imply that he continues to support the notion that lower performing kids will need more resources.

But it’s like he leans in toward poverty in his recognition of lower performing kids, but, yoked to his teaching system, does not move outside those boundaries. I grant you, he’s an educator, and strangeness such as early childhood education and support of young mothers in poverty or a more direct assault on poverty itself are outside his ken and lie more in the public policy basket.

But that speaks to my fear. Everybody has their own favorite solutions, some as well vetted as Professional Learning Communities and championed by persons of influence; they might all be implemented faithfully in this new ESSA order and still teachers and schools struggle against a stacked deck with too many low income students too unprepared for what is expected of them from the first moment they walk through their first school room door.

I think of the Connecticut judge who recently went on a heartfelt rant from the bench about the failure of Connecticut schools to educate poor students. Yes, he observes schools literally neighbors, with the same funding, yet the urban school fails its students and the suburban school sends its students on to college. It is distressing that this well-meaning and passionately disposed official chooses not to look more deeply than the obvious, and this time I don’t mean funding, I mean community conditions. Yes, the urban school has failed, but in a community vastly different from that in which the suburban school breeds success. Please, a deeper dive. I fear the wider public, political stakeholders, and the educational community under the new ESSA regimen will continue to make the same mistake.


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