My Chief Concerns about ESSA
I have been asked recently if I would compose a list of concerns related to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESSA replaces the last revision, the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
I had planned to write a series of posts based on reading the entire ESSA document. However, after writing four posts, I became sidetracked from such a monumental task. (Plus, it is a dry task, and one that is likely to appeal to very few readers.) Perhaps I will take it up again this summer.
For now, let me offer in this post my chief concerns with ESSA.
I have three.
Concern One: Opt-out “Catch 22”
First of all, ESSA plays a game with states via its Title I 95 percent annual testing requirement for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in English language arts (ELA) and math. On page 36, ESSA traps states into including 95 percent of all enrolled students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school as the denominator in determining annual measures of achievement on the mandated (yet state-selected) standardized tests. At the same time, ESSA tries to exonerate itself from driving state and local opt out policies by offering a “rule of construction” regarding the right of parents to opt their children out of testing (see page 32).
ESSA requires the 95 percent of testing for the states even as it says, “Don’t pin your state opt-out policies on us for our federal policy.”
ESSA also requires that states include that 95 percent testing in state accountability systems (page 36). States, districts and schools are able to apply for “waivers of statutory and regulatory requirements” (page 302), but this only puts states, districts, or schools at the mercy of the US secretary of education.
Concern Two: Data Security
My second concern involves data collection and especially security. Pages 79 and 80 state that no data is to be collected except that which is “explicitly authorized under this Act.” However, as the February 02, 2016, Congressional Oversight Committee Hearing of US Department of Education (USDOE) Chief Information Officer (CIO) Danny Harris demonstrated, not only was the federal government able to hack into the USDOE data system; acting US secretary John King bent over backwards in defending Harris’ questionable conflicts of interest and shoddy upkeep over the course of years with securing said data. Despite Harris’ failure to secure student data, USDOE awarded him bonuses. (For details on Harris’ hearing, see this oversight committee summary and these partial transcriptions: here and here.)
Harris retired at the end of February 2016; however, the security issues remain, not the least of which is King’s apparent concern for Harris over data security.
Thus, I have no confidence in ESSA language that it will only collect “authorized” data. USDOE has failed for years to secure the data it has, which includes to date 139 million unique social security numbers.
Concern Three: Charter Promotion and Expansion
As was true for NCLB, ESSA is very friendly to charters. In Title IV, ESSA seeks to open and expand “high-quality” charter schools (page 194). The problem is the USDOE’s history of failing to properly account for its own spending on charter schools. Indeed, in November 2015, USDOE awarded a recommended $71 million to Ohio for its charter schools despite the fact that Ohio admitted to tampering with the numbers on the USDOE application.
In an amazing response, USDOE excused itself from failing to recognize it just sent multiple millions to an openly-acknowledged charter fraud situation by stating that it only gave the applications an “expedited” reading. And it was up to Ohio officials to point out to USDOE that USDOE was about to immediately release $32.6 million out of that proposed $71 million to a state riddled with charter scandal.
USDOE’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has raised concerns about USDOE’s sloppiness in running its own charter program, including inadequate oversight and record keeping. (Read about that here.)
So, there you have it, in brief: My three chief concerns with ESSA.
Through trying to force states into that 95 percent of students testing in order to qualify for Title I funds, ESSA only puts states in a precarious position to try to pressure an American public that is growing tired of test-score-driven reforms into a position of increasing rebellion against such testing– and placing states at the mercy of the US secretary of education.
Furthermore, the Harris affair has only fed the public’s distrust of USDOE’s data collection and handling. Nothing in ESSA provides the public any assurance to the contrary.
Finally, USDOE has demonstrated without doubt that it has no handle on its charter school spending, but it has shown that it plans to speed recklessly ahead with doling out hundreds of millions more on a charter school program that it has yet to ever properly oversee.
I would like ESSA a whole lot better if USDOE would flip the intensity of its 95-percent testing grip in Title I with its nonchalance both about charter spending related to Title IV and keeping the likes of incompetent CIO Danny Harris in annual bonuses.