The U.S. Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved the rewrite of the famous -- some would say, infamous – federal No Child Left Behind Act that, true to its name, brought tight accountability to districts and schools for the past 14 years.
But will it make all that much difference to New Jersey?
The new Every Student Succeeds Act, all but assured to be signed by President Barack Obama, would scale back some of the most stringent federal requirements and labels on schools, from the notorious “highly qualified” tags for teachers to novel formulas that determined whether all schools made “adequate yearly progress’’ (in the end, most didn’t).
But for all the hype about the new bill, which came together quickly last month after more than a year of negotiation, it’s uncertain how much change it will mean for New Jersey’s education policy -- already seeing some significant shifts on its own.
The following are four key areas where the new law, once signed, will -- and will not -- make a big difference.
ESSA -- the acronym to replace NCLB -- will still require states to adopt high-quality standards for “college and career readiness” and administer tests to match the standards in grades 3 to 8, plus a year in high school, in language arts and math.
At the same time, it will loosen the rules as to what exactly those standards and tests are, leaving it to states to develop both on their own.
New Jersey may be well along that path already.
Signing up for the Common Core State Standards and the aligned PARCC testing in Grades 3-11, the Christie administration last year launched the new PARCC testing in language arts and math, plus an incremental test in science.
But Gov. Chris Christie last summer pulled back from the Common Core, setting in motion a rewrite of the standards. And while he has said PARCC remains in place, state officials have conceded some changes could be on the way.
A state task force is currently reviewing the state’s assessments, including those required for high-school graduation. Recommendations are expected in the next month.
“There certainly will be some substantial recommendations,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe of the upcoming report.
But Hespe, who chairs the task force, wouldn’t say much more before the report’s release: “I think there will be some important changes,” he commented, “but I’ll let the report speak for itself.”
The most significant change may be how testing results are used.
Under the NCLB, the test scores dictated any number of interventions by the state and calls for improvements by the districts, from the lowest to the highest performers who all faced criticism and corrective actions for not reaching “adequate yearly progress” standards.The new bill would scale back those prescriptions considerably.
For one, only the lowest performers will be cited at all, with the proposed law calling for interventions to the bottom 5 percent of schools on either overall results or student-achievement gaps.
The new law would allow the state to set the parameters of what would happen next. Under NCLB, there were a variety of prescriptions for low performers, including closing schools altogether or converting them to charters.
“This is where I see the most profound changes,” Hespe said in an interview yesterday. “All of that has been rolled back and delegated to the states.”
That could mean changes to the way New Jersey’s uses Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) in each county, Hespe said, or even specific interventions in its state-operated districts that were all written into its federally approved plans.
Still, the commissioner said he did not expect any immediate shifts from the administration’s path, which has already attained some degree of flexibility using the federal waiver from NCLB, a waiver that continues for another year.
“We’re comfortable with what we put forward in the waiver,” he said. “But having some flexibility in how we do things in the future, that is always welcomed.”
The biggest question in rolling back accountability is what protections will remain for those most in need. After all, No Child Left Behind, for all its flaws, was credited with bringing attention to students who previously were overlooked by state and federal law, namely those with special needs or disadvantaged by poverty.
The new law would continue to require the release of student-performance measures for all categories of children, including those with special needs. But except for the lowest performing, the interventions would be limited.
New Jersey’s U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, both Democrats who voted for the bill, said earlier this week that the help afforded special-needs students remained a significant concern.
“That is something I will keep an eagle eye on,” Booker said in a press call before the vote.
Others said the protections remained scant in the new bill.
“The new law, like the old law, does nothing to press New Jersey and other states to provide adequate school funding or expand essential programs for at-risk children, such high-quality preschool,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center.
“It's still up to us to demand the Legislature address the chronic underfunding across the state, so students have the teachers, support staff, and programs they need to succeed in school. On advancing equity for our most vulnerable students, the new law is ‘same as it ever was.’”
Despite the broad principles embodied in the bill about scaling back federal influence and power, the true impact will be in the more arcane regulations and guidelines written by the U.S. Department of Education for states to follow -- not to mention the resources put in place to enforce those regulations.
For example, one stipulation in the new law prohibits the U.S Secretary of Education from expanding federal powers over schools, a clear nod to those who have said Washington is overreaching in its powers.
“But how are they going to interpret what is pretty vague language,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University specializing in education policy. “Nobody likes talking about regulations, but that is where a lot of the impact is.”
McGuinn said much of that could come quickly, too, as President Obama has only one more year to establish his legacy. For a president who has pushed for an unprecedented federal influence in schools, he may not give it up too easily.
Hespe, too, said that the department will largely rely on the federal government in providing direction for the next steps, commenting that it was not clear how long current policies would remain in place.
“We will need to get guidance from the USDOE on a lot of this,” he said.