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The Every Student Succeeds Act: What it Means for Schools, Systems, and States

reviewed by Joseph Nichols - October 04, 2017

coverTitle: The Every Student Succeeds Act: What it Means for Schools, Systems, and States
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess & Max Eden (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682530124, Pages: 256, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

The federal policy making process in the United States is complex. Consisting of false starts and stops, policy paths are not linear. They meander from point A to point B as policy makers, special interest groups, and the public try to solve problems of common concern. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, trace the evolution of federal education policy from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in their new book—The Every Student Succeeds Act: What It Means for Schools, Systems, and States.

The book follows ESSA from its origins in ESEA to questions about how the law will be implemented and state capacity needed to ensure ESSA’s success. In Chapter One, Patrick McGuinn points out that “U.S. policy makers have articulated three major arguments for increased federal involvement in education: racial (fixing the legacy of racial injustice), national security (promoting defense research), and economic (alleviating poverty)” (pp. 13-14). Chapter Two, by Jeffrey R. Henig, David M. Houston, and Melissa Arnold Lyon, examines how these three rationales for federal involvement in education evolved into NCLB and culminated in ESSA. Alyson Klein’s chapter highlights how ESSA passed a polarized U.S. Congress by taking advantage of everyone’s malaise toward NCLB.

Chapters Four through Six discuss what ESSA says, present cases for and against the legislation, and examine state capacity for delivering on its promise. In Chapter Four, Charles Barone outlines the academic, assessment, and data requirements in ESSA and points out how ESSA limits federal authority and eliminates NCLB’s teacher quality provisions. Chapter Five, written by Martin West, makes the case for ESSA by highlighting the flexibility it provides states on issues such as testing, accountability, and teacher policy. Chapter Six, by Chad Aldeman, argues on the other hand that ESSA “depends on fifty different states looking at this fuzzy picture and deciding what to make of it” (p. 93)—creating a difficult federal dilemma around holding states accountable in areas where their track record is lacking (e.g., supporting low-income students, providing high-minority schools equitable resources).

Following this discussion, the next three chapters, written by Arnold Shober, Ashley Jochim, and Michael Casserly, ask whether states have the resources and policy stamina to implement ESSA effectively for all students. For example, Jochim notes that “states could choose to differentiate schools based on a weighting scheme that is tied to state priorities” (p. 129). Although this freedom to innovate might encourage state capacity, Casserly argues that “ESSA represented a fundamental shift toward state autonomy that threatened to override the strategic alignment of urban schools and the federal government around support for the nation’s neediest students” (p. 137). The book takes a fair look at these questions and notes that implementation is still an open question.

Chapters Ten and Eleven analyze what ESSA means for federal education policy. In Chapter Ten, Cynthia Brown examines whether or not ESSA represents progress or regression. She questions what will happen in states with weak systems of public education. Specifically, Brown argues that “most state legislatures today are very conservative and uninterested in education equity” (p.165)—which is a goal the federal government has long pursued. In Chapter Eleven, Chester E. Finn, Jr. points out that ESSA represents the downward part of a cycle of federal overreach and rollback. He notes that the federal government has a history of ramping up and then pulling back in a variety of areas, including education. As such, Finn is not hopeful that ESSA is here to stay.

Finally, in Chapter Eleven, Fredrick M. Hess and Max Eden examine where ESSA stands. Because ESSA is a bipartisan accomplishment in a time of extreme partisanship, it represents a variety of compromises. Hess and Eden point out that ESSA has to balance testing, school evaluation, and school intervention within an accountability framework that is meaningful but allows for innovation and flexibility. However, they argue that these compromises “may end up splitting the proverbial baby” (p. 193), rendering the legislation ineffective. In other words, ESSA’s balancing act might be its undoing.

Even though The Every Student Succeeds Act: What It Means for Schools, Systems, and States provides a comprehensive review of ESSA, I was left with a few questions after reading the book. How will ESSA impact rural schools? What will ESSA mean for rural students? As the United States continues to deindustrialize and urbanize, rural schools, which have long relied on a manufacturing and agricultural tax base, are becoming more of a concern to state policy makers. For example, localities such as the Missouri bootheel have faced economic disinvestment, health care provider shortages, school financing, and teacher recruitment issues over the last several years. This context warrants specific analysis for how large-scale federal policy changes like ESSA will impact the schools in these regions. The book leaves these issues unexplored.

I was also left wondering about the variety of ways one can define student success and, by extension, school performance. What does ESSA mean for civic education? How does ESSA position civic efficacy and empowerment? Whereas NCLB defined educational success around academic achievement, ESSA, though it maintains this emphasis, allows for broader discretion, meaning a state could account for the civic mission of schools in its accountability system. Hess and Eden’s book, however, does not address these questions as it sticks with the academic definition of student success and school performance.

ESSA represents a shift in federal education policy that will move the locus of accountability back to the states. In a sense, ESSA represents a watershed moment in our current thinking about education policy and captures the politics associated with the American values of freedom, equity, and justice as well as the tension between our pursuit of individualism and collectivism. Education is always on the front lines of these political exchanges and anyone interested in or working on education issues in the United States would be a good candidate for reading this book. Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden provide a good starting point for understanding ESSA’s policy landscape and a solid foundation for continued conversation about federal and state roles in education policy.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22185, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:48:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Joseph Nichols
    Saint Louis University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH R. NICHOLS, Jr., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education in the School of Education at Saint Louis University. Joseph's research focuses on issues of social justice, citizenship, and democracy in education and teacher education policy. He is currently working on projects that examine capitalism's influence on civic education and citizenship in schools, teacher preparation policy and accountability in the United States, and the civic mission and purpose of schooling in India. You can read more about Joseph's work at www.josephrnicholsjr.com.
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