Julia Steiny: Why the Every Student Succeeds Act Will Never Work

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By Julia Steiny

Given the battlefield that is our current Congress, congratulations to them are in order for agreeing on anything.  Together, miraculously, they revamped the old 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB was loathed from the get-go.  It was a set-up for failure, since it was and is still statistically impossible to have all children proficient by 2014 or any other date.  NCLB’s set of increasing threats and punishments for under-performing schools produced widespread cheating scandals.  Art and hands-on projects were cut in order to devote time and resources to improving test scores instead of actual learning.  The hostile “accountability” measures backfired so strongly that many states got waiver agreements from the feds to pull the law’s punitive punches.

NCLB’s recently-passed replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), does two things of note.  First, it devolves to the states the power to design their own accountability systems.  This is an improvement, but we’ve been here before.  Some states set such absurdly low thresholds that nearly all of their kids are “proficient,” while simultaneously bombing on the national NAEPs.  Like grade inflation, deeming all kids proficient when they’re not is a kind lie, with unkind consequences.  States will need several years to create and then impose their own systems so everyone will have time to figure out how to spin their kids’ achievement results.  But getting the feds out of the naming-and-shaming game is a big plus.

Secondly, the ESSA removes the mandate that teachers be evaluated according to the kids’ test scores — another statistically absurd idea.  Surely scores will still be used for some evaluations, in some fashion.  But it was outright funny watching states twist themselves into pretzels to assess gym and art teachers’ performance on standardized reading tests, for example.

See here for a side-by-side summary of the old and new laws; just scroll down a bit.

But what’s in it for the kids?

Sadly, not much.

The law has only minor changes to how it allocates dollars — for better or worse.  But for consistency’s sake, the fed money will flow as it has in the past, without interruption and with fewer strings.

And officially removing the nastiness of the “sanctions,” which were punishments for under-performance, might help everyone to relax a bit.  Hopefully some kindness will trickle down to the kids.

However… the law hardly reflects that any of its authors had in mind the actual warm-bodied kids who are involved in education.  The way to improve education is to improve the conditions in which it takes place.  What would nourish curious kids so they can soak up more learning than they did before?  Kids are organic beings.  The fields or flower beds where their minds are being cultivated need rich curricular and strategic nutrients with more access to sunshine and refreshing waters.  As it is, achievement levels will likely remain stagnant or even recede.

The assumption of education is that the acquisition of skills and content is built on a solid foundation of mental health.  Schools are designed to respond to kids who arrive with a reasonable amount of attention that they can give to the business of learning.  In reality, many kids arrive quite distracted for a whole host of reasons, from too much video gaming to full-on trauma.  I resent the people who blame school performance on parents and poverty, but get real.  Struggling families tend to have struggling kids.  Struggling kids act out, withdraw, or see little point in school.  Since 2001 the poverty level among public school children has risen from 38.3% to 49.6% in 2012.  It’s likely that they’ve passed the 50% threshold by now, so more than half of all kids in public schools are living in families where deprivation is the norm.

That’s the tip of the iceberg.  The U.S. has absurdly negative stats showing high rates of premature pregnancy, drug use and disengagement.  In brief:  a huge proportion of U.S. kids are not okay.  And in many cases the troubles at home are then compounded at troubled, overwhelmed schools.

You would think that if you were re-writing the federal education act, the plight of the kids and families might spark a conversation.  Because here we are, once again, going down a road that is statistically impossible.  Education will never improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate.  This doesn’t let the schools off the hook at all.  Like the feds themselves, it’s their job to advocate for the health, well-being and prosperous future of the children under their watch.  No, they don’t think of it as their role, but it’s high time they start if they hope to get anything accomplished.

The Congressional happy-dancing about the Every Child Succeeds Act shows zero political appetite for taking on improving the welfare of the kids.  Once again, this will never work.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny