This week’s passage of The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marks a new era of education policy in our country and a critical opportunity for states to take renewed ownership of policies and to lead on improving outcomes for all students.
The ESSA, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, significantly shifts the balance of power in education policy away from the federal government, and back into the hands of state leaders. While states must still incorporate annual assessments into accountability measures that are reported to the U.S. Department of Education, ESSA gives states discretion to choose college- and career-ready standards without any influence from the federal government, create accountability systems, and intervene in low-performing schools.
Fewer federal requirements and mandates mean that states will need to embrace the opportunity to evaluate their existing policies and identify areas where they can modify, create and implement new policies that will be both effective and equitable. We share a central goal: helping students graduate from high school equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college, and helping many more students get to and through college.
As someone with roots in both state government and at a state education agency, I’m confident states will rise to the occasion and embrace the increased autonomy and flexibility provided by ESSA to make decisions that are in the best interest for their students academically.
This will require continued commitment to high standards, equity, support for teachers, and honest measurements that tell educators, policymakers and parents how each student is performing, and where they need more support. This is particularly important for our low-income and minority students whose rates of proficiency, graduation, and college matriculation remain substantially lower across the country than those of their peers.
Policy does not exist in a vacuum, so state leaders will also need to prioritize building the valuable partnerships with educators, parents, and community members that are key to the challenging, yet vital work of preparing all students for college and career.
The importance of thoughtful policies complemented by effective implementation and broad support cannot be overstated. Kentucky is a prime example. As the first state to adopt the Common Core, Kentucky engaged the community and worked with parents, teachers and school leaders to build an interconnected system of standards, teacher evaluation and support, and measurement over time. That work has resulted in a 22 percent increase in Kentucky students meeting three out of four ACT benchmarks for college readiness since 2011.
Finally, while the ESSA does largely transfer decision-making authority in education back to states, it’s important that we also keep the ultimate goal in mind. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we believe that education can serve as a bridge to opportunity for all of our children. That bridge needs to be broad enough, accessible enough, and reliable enough to carry students above and beyond their current circumstances. So, state leaders will need to grapple with challenging questions and new approaches to ensure each student—whether in Washington state or Washington, D.C.—is supported and on a path for success in the K-12 system and beyond.