Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Voices: The Every Student Succeeds Act, Four Years Later

By Andrew Ujifusa, Evie Blad & Daarel Burnette II — December 09, 2019 19 min read
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When President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10, 2015, he called it a “Christmas miracle.” The law, which replaced the much-criticized No Child Left Behind Act, represented years of negotiations, promising signs that fizzled, and eventual bipartisan agreement. Since then, the story about the law has become a lot more complicated.

Although the law shifted key authority over school improvement, teacher evaluations, and funding transparency to states and districts, public schools are still in the process of formally adjusting to ESSA. Amid recent headlines that U.S. students’ performance on standardized exams is stagnating or worse, we don’t know what if any impact the law will have long-term on schools’ ability to serve all students and serve them well.

One thing can be said for sure: Even though ESSA’s authorization period has now technically expired—it was originally authorized for four years—and even though the Trump administration’s approach to ESSA has sharply divided Democrats and Republicans, the universal expectation on Capitol Hill is that it will effectively be the law of the land for years to come. There’s recent precedent for the main federal K-12 law to be overdue for an update for years at a time; No Child Left Behind’s authorization expired in 2007.

To gauge how ESSA is being viewed four years on by those who are living with the law day to day, we touched base with educators and officials across the K-12 spectrum, from classroom teachers and principals to superintendents and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to get their views of ESSA. Click on the menu below to see what these people had to say:

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. | Jessica Baghian | Jillian Balow | Diana Cournoyer | Ryan Daniel | U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos | Denise Forte | Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. | Rosemary Hughes | Renee Hyde, Ed.D. | Sara Kerr | Lillian Lowery | Carlas McCauley | Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. | Shanna Peeples | Marguerite Roza, Ph.D. | Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. | Mark Sass | Michelle Youngblood Jarman

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Chairman, Senate Education Committee


In a statement, Alexander again emphasized that ESSA correctly took power over key education decisions out of Washington’s control.

“On this fourth anniversary, we should remember that the best decisions about increasing student achievement and fixing the lowest-performing schools are usually made state by state, community by community,” Alexander said.

He also praised states for how they’ve actually implemented the law.

“Less time is being focused just on test scores,” he said. “States have begun to identify the lowest performing schools and provide extra support during this school year.”

In 2017, Alexander sharply criticized the U.S. Department of Education for questioning elements of Delaware’s proposed ESSA plan. Since then, Alexander has taken a largely hands-off approach to the law. He’s also said that he expects ESSA to be the law of the land for many years even after its authorization period expires.

Jessica Baghian

Louisiana Assistant State Superintendent


“It has provided an opportunity for us to refine our strategies, and also, in the case of assessment, follow the research and innovate in assessment in a way that was not allowed under the previous structures,” Baghian said.

Louisiana is using a pilot program under ESSA to fundamentally overhaul its assessment system, with the goal of measuring students on both English/language arts and social studies without using the traditional end-of-year exams made famous (or infamous) by No Child Left Behind. The pilot is taking place in middle schools this year, and approximately 21,000 students are participating.

Baghian, who oversees assessment in the Pelican State, said ESSA has allowed the state to build on its own initiatives. The new testing system, for example, is intended to leverage its work on a statewide curriculum used by the vast majority of Louisiana districts.

Jillian Balow

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction


In its approved ESSA plan, Wyoming is holding schools accountable in part by highlighting a new “equity” indicator based on the growth of the lowest-performing quartile of students, as well as a measure of post-secondary readiness relying on a variety of data points, from Advanced Placement scores to industry certificates.

“Instead of trying to skim over inequities, or put the good data out front to hide the bad data, one thing that ESSA has done is allowed us all an opportunity to reveal inequities,” said, Balow, a Republican elected to the position in 2014 and 2018. “The equity indicator has allowed us to really rethink everything we do at the state education agency,” from the feedback the state gets from teachers, to efforts to align assessments with state standards.

Diana Cournoyer

Executive Director, National Indian Education Association


Before ESSA, Cournoyer said, states, local districts, and the federal government often ignored Native American tribes by leaving them out of important decisions, or making it difficult for tribal members to have a real voice in discussions.

“There was no dialogue, there was no back and forth,” said Cournoyer, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “It was agencies—federal, state and local—saying: This is what we’re doing.”

That’s changed some under ESSA, she said. States like Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington are truly trying to meet the law’s new, more-robust definition of “meaningful consultation” with tribes on several issues.

“It provided an opportunity for tribes to have a seat at the table ... not just at the beginning of the year but throughout the year, in the development of state plans,” she said.

She says that approach has spread to other education issues. In Oregon, for example, ESSA’s requirement for tribes to be more closely involved in key decisions led to the state’s decision to initiate the creation of a curriculum that focuses on American Indian and Alaska Native history.

Cournoyer said the “meaningful consultation” requirement made a difference when states developed their ESSA plans. However, she says Native American parents still encounter difficulties when they question or criticize districts’ decisions in other areas.

Ryan Daniel

Principal, Chillum Elementary School, Hyattsville, Md.


More than half—52 percent—of Daniel’s students are English-language learners. ESSA, and its increased focus on those students, has led her to hire an additional ELL teacher and to use federal resources to provide English classes for parents at her school.

Outside the school walls, Daniel, who is in her third year leading Chillum Elementary, said ESSA has definitely meant stepped-up monitoring of how funds are used and a great focus on accountability, especially when it comes to how the school is rated.

“There’s definitely been more transparency to the community around how each school has been performing,” Daniel said.

But Daniel said it has sometimes been difficult to explain that just because a school does not get five stars on the state’s ESSA accountability system, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t great things that are happening within the building.”

Similarly, ESSA’s changes to teacher certification requirements have led to more opportunities for her to hire educators with alternative certification, but also more challenges in explaining to parents about what goes into those hiring decisions.

Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education

Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

DeVos has encouraged states to take full advantage of the flexibility ESSA offers them because, she said in a statement, “It represented an important step in shifting power to where it belongs in education: families and the states.”

And she hasn’t been afraid to criticize states publicly when she believes they haven’t used ESSA to blaze new trails, as she did in 2018 during public remarks to state education chiefs.

Yet so far, her efforts to use ESSA to leverage new school choice opportunities have fallen short on Capitol Hill.

For the most part, DeVos declined to pick fights with states over their proposed ESSA plans. That’s in large part due to her distaste for robust federal intervention in state and local education decisions. In fact, she recently told state lawmakers that ESSA should be the starting point for a conversation about why the federal role in education has failed. And she said the same motivation behind ESSA to shift power from Washington to the states should be taken up in turn by states.

“Local lawmakers should always look to extend the same flexibility ESSA allows states to teachers, parents, and students themselves,” she said in her same statement. “More states need to embrace the opportunities ESSA affords to do what’s right for their students.”

Denise Forte

Senior Vice President for Partnership and Engagement, the Education Trust


The Education Trust, a civil rights advocacy group led by former Obama-era Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., has been one of the most critical voices of how the Trump administration has handled ESSA. And Forte says the state and local activists the organization works with say those concerns haven’t abated.

“We’ve been concerned from the outset that the law as written, which was meant to be a civil rights law, without the right federal guidance, support, and oversight, we couldn’t be that sure about what the outcomes were going to be for kids,” Forte said. “[The state and local activists] are very clear that the secretary sort of approved these [ESSA] plans willy-nilly.”

Forte gave kudos to states like Louisiana for being aggressive in the proportion of schools that they have identified as needing improvement under ESSA. But without the proper resources and oversight from Washington over the long term, she said, “I think we are looking at a situation where student outcomes are not going to improve and we are back to where we started, when we first started trying to write ESSA and solve these problems.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

Ranking Member, House Education Committee


Foxx was not a lead author of ESSA. But she did lead the House education committee in the 115th Congress during roughly the first two years of the Trump administration. Early in 2017, she supported the push in Congress to overturn ESSA accountability rules written by the Obama administration, a move ultimately approved by President Donald Trump. And she’s supported Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ desire to let communities, and not the federal government, tackle big K-12 challenges.

“History has shown that a top-down approach to K-12 education did not serve students, teachers, parents, or states well,” Foxx said in a statement, “and ESSA directly addressed those shortcomings by giving states and school districts new independence in running K-12 programs, ending the ‘Washington knows best’ approach.”

Rosemary Hughes

Director of the Bureau of School Support, Pennsylvania Department of Education


Under ESSA, roughly 700 Pennsylvania public schools have been identified as needing some kind of improvement. That can put pressure on a lot of education administrators. But Hughes wants them to focus on the process, and what’s at the root of their challenges, rather than rushing headlong into a quick fix.

“What we’re focusing on under ESSA is not just selecting a plan … but that you actually have to be disciplined and focused on what it takes to implement that strategy,” said Hughes.

Among other things, she said, that means helping principals become more “informed consumers” about evidence-based strategies for turning around low-performing schools. It also means, Pennsylvania’s case, creating a curated resource of improvement strategies but not prescribing any to any particular school.

“What ESSA has introduced is the need to continuously collect data and analyze those data to be able to communicate whether something is working or not working,” Hughes told us.

Renee Hyde, Ed.D.

Associate Professor of Practice, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


ESSA eased some requirements that were particularly challenging for rural districts with small administrative staffs, said Hyde.

For example, it scrapped No Child Left Behind’s more prescriptive “highly qualified” teacher requirements and gave states the ability to set their own definition of effective educators. Those requirements were challenging, particularly in rural areas with fewer teacher candidates, said Hyde, who previously supervised human resources and student services for a Nebraska district and served on a committee to inform her state’s ESSA plan.

The previous requirement “felt like one more hoop to jump through,” she said, “and it didn’t improve the quality of the teachers.”

Sara Kerr

Vice President, Education Policy Implementation, Results for America


“I think it’s worked out the way the authors wrote it,” said Kerr, whose group works with states on ESSA implementation. “I think it’s being implemented in some ways as intended and without big surprises.”

One example: Nevada’s work in ensuring input from across the K-12 space when making key decisions, matching schools with pre-vetted providers of education services, and partnering with districts to roll out research studies of effective strategies within the state.

Such actions, Kerr said, show that when states are deliberate, thoughtful, and supportive of schools, they can take advantage of what ESSA has to offer.

At the same time, it’s far too early to know where and how states have used ESSA most effectively, Kerr said. And the way it shrinks the federal footprint and burden on states and districts shouldn’t get unqualified praise, she said: “I worry that under ESSA we’ve really rolled back our ability to even understand the extent to which students have access to high-quality, effective educators.”

Lillian Lowery

Former Maryland State Superintendent of Schools and Delaware Secretary of Education, Vice President of Student and Teacher Assessments at Educational Testing Service


Federal lawmakers have handed more responsibility over education to the states, and states need to use that power responsibly, said Lowery, who served as schools chief in two states that agreed to change their education systems as conditions for Race to the Top grants before ESSA passed.

“When we talk about accountability, let’s be clear-eyed about that: Are our kids learning or not?” Lowery said.

Some criticized the Race the Top process as an example of federal officials exerting too much control. Lowery warned that without as much federal control, states need to be sure they aren’t just “working on a plan to work on a plan” to fix failing schools, but are actually doing the urgent work necessary to improve them, she said.

“When these things aren’t happening now, the only ones we can point to are the ones we see in the mirror,” Lowery said.

Carlas McCauley

Director of Research and Partnerships, University of California, Davis


Thanks to ESSA, state and local leaders have “really shifted their conversations” about school improvement in several promising ways, said McCauley, who used to oversee School Improvement Grants at the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration. ESSA has given educators space to stop and reflect about how they know strategies are working, and to adjust their practices accordingly.

“One of the things I think we may have lacked over the years is really creating a learning environment for our system,” McCauley told us. But now thanks in part to ESSA, he said, “I’m seeing pieces of that across the country.”

Kentucky is an example of a state, he said, that has used ESSA to ensure that it is able to provide appropriate resources to its lower-performing districts to improve their schools.

McCauley has concerns that there may not be enough federal oversight of ESSA. But he also said foundations and private organizations are stepping in to try and ensure ESSA is being appropriately implemented.

“If in 10 years, when we ask ourselves ‘Did ESSA work?’ I’d say our answer will be no. But that’s not the right question,” McCauley said. The right question, he argued, is, “Where was ESSA leveraged to create better outcomes?”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Ranking Member, Senate Education Committee


The protections in the law for disadvantaged students that Murray worked to put in the bill four years ago aren’t working as intended, she said, because of the Trump administration. And more than two decades of federal education policymaking could be undermined as a result, she argues.

“We put in guardrails to make sure that students didn’t fall through the cracks,” Murray said. “We didn’t want to be five or 10 years out from passing that bill and be back in the same place as before we passed the No Child Left Behind bill.”

Murray says ESSA has fulfilled its promise of relieving the pressure that testing had increasingly put on students, teachers, and schools. But her biggest target for criticism is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who she says has “simply approved [state ESSA] plans that violate the law.”

“I just see a lot of problems with how Secretary DeVos is implementing this law,” Murray said. (Among other things, Murray indicated that plans approved by DeVos do not properly identify schools with struggling subgroups the way ESSA requires them to.)

As for rewriting the law any time soon? Murray said making major revisions to ESSA constitutes a very difficult task.

“I expect with a new administration and a confirmation of a new secretary of education that it would be one that really focused on meeting the goals of ESSA bills as we stated,” she said.

Shanna Peeples

Council of Chief State School Officers Student-Centered Learning Fellow; 2015 National Teacher of the Year


As classroom teacher when ESSA passed, Peeples saw two big selling points for educators: an emphasis on teacher leadership and the promise of less emphasis on testing.

“Now that I’m on the other side of it and looking at the policy deeply, I see so many missed opportunities for teachers,” Peeples said. Rather than step outside of the box and try new things, some school and district leaders are “defensive and self-protective” and have adopted a “compliance mindset,” Peeples said.

If more teachers understood the law, they could collectively advocate for issues that directly concern them, such as pressing for Title I funds to be spent on improving student mental health supports or coordinating wraparound services.

“It’s been a revelation to me,” Peeples said. “It’s so critical that teachers know policy, but I’m also so aware of what’s on a teacher’s plate day-to-day.”

Marguerite Roza, Ph.D.

School Finance Professor, Georgetown University, Director of the Edunomics Lab


ESSA requires districts for the first time to break out for the public how much money they spend on each individual school. States are required to publish the data on its 2018-19 report cards, and but at least 20 states have already done so.

“Most of them are diligently and urgently going through the process,” said Roza, who has written extensively about financial transparency and helped state department officials comply with the new requirements. “Some are doing spectacularly well.” Roza said the next challenge for states is to get districts to embrace and use the data.

“It’s absolutely true that districts are generally anxious about this data. They’re feeling like it’s an airing of their dirty laundry. If they take that reaction, we won’t get very far. But we’ve found that when they work with the data, they say, ‘I see the value now, we can do this.’ It’s states’ responsibility to bring districts along.”

Mark Sass

U.S. History Teacher, Legacy High School, Broomfield, Colo.


As a 2015-16 Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, Sass saw ESSA take shape and become reality. He and his peers at the department were initially hopeful that it would represent a big opportunity for states to truly innovate.

Now, Sass said, “When I see a lot of the opportunities that were presented in ESSA, I don’t see that they were taken advantage of.”

He’s disappointed in how states (including Colorado) have approached ESSA’s permission to measure and prioritize school climate and other factors in student success that aren’t test scores and graduation. Most officials have gone for “low-hanging fruit,” specifically chronic absenteeism, instead of working closely with communities to figure out what schools should be scrutinizing and working to change for the better, he said.

That problematic approach, he said, extends to how Colorado discussed and gathered input for ESSA and who the state talks to about key issues. “They’re using the same structures. They’re using the same groups that they were before,” Sass said.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.

Chairman, House Education Committee


One of ESSA’s primary architects, Scott has repeatedly stressed that at its heart, ESSA is a civil rights law, just like the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and that it is designed to serve historically disadvantaged students.

He also hasn’t been shy about sharply criticizing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ approach to ESSA; he’s indicated that she’s approved plans that don’t do enough for those students. And Scott has also warned states that ESSA’s flexibility does not represent a “blank check” for them to flout the law.

“ESSA remains a strong foundation that can support meaningful improvements to our public education system,” Scott said in a statement. “But it requires educators and policymakers across the country to recommit to the spirit of the law and our shared responsibility to provide a quality public school education to every student.”

Michelle Youngblood Jarman

Literature Teacher, Eagle Rock Junior-Senior High School, Los Angeles


Accountability systems can only measure so much, said Youngblood Jarman, a 2016 Los Angeles Teacher of the Year. In her view, ESSA has the potential to change that, but has yet to do so in a meaningful way.

“We were looking for systemic change, and now it’s mostly compliance,” she said. “That happens sometimes: ‘Here are the rules we’ve come up with, and now here’s the compliance.’ ”

Example: California’s ESSA accountability dashboard may show the number of suspensions are dropping in a school or district, she said, but the data don’t necessarily show whether educators have addressed underlying problems that lead to misbehavior, like anxiety or exposure to trauma.

As Congress considered what to include in ESSA, Youngblood Jarman worked with Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led organization, to draft priorities for the bill. She was encouraged to see an expanded accountability focus that encouraged states to track data on issues like school climate and student absenteeism.

But she also said, “If we just collect data but we don’t follow up with resources to make that systemic change, that’s not results.”

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