A new horizon under ESSA: 11 Opportunities and actions facing educators and schools


The Every Student Succeeds Act—or ESSA—successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), provides numerous opportunities and challenges. Extensive autonomy is being conveyed to the states to design accountability, allocate funding, drive school improvement, and modernize educator and leadership development.

District administrators and educational leaders across the US are closely eyeing their Google alerts to keep informed on ESSA regulations impacting the provisions. They’re paying close attention to state leaders, watching enews for progress of various committees, and listening to their educational advisors. The next few years will see a flurry of activity as educational leaders track funding changes and plan to align with pending state directives for performance.

Freedom and flexibility

Although the law doesn’t go into full effect until the 2017-2018 school year, the coming school year will see more sustainable and simpler initiatives from states, and freedom for districts to create their own goals.

This new pressure on state education agencies comes against the backstory of overall recovery to K-12 aid nationally. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 41 states increased their K-12 funding in the 2016 fiscal year. ESSA advocates and policymakers say the law takes important steps to exposing funding inequalities and ensuring different populations of kids have access to a quality education, no matter where they live, how they learn, or their care-givers’ socioeconomic status.

The responsibilities of State Departments traditionally charged with administering standardized tests, establishing and certifying curriculum, and making sure federal funds are distributed appropriately will greatly expand under ESSA. And, the law includes a range of transparency requirements to give the feds, states, districts, educators and advocates a lens on how different populations of kids are doing and what kind of access they have to educational assets and funding.

Looking at the impact of ESSA on curricula, here are some potential opportunities under ESSA and possible actions for districts and schools to contemplate:

  1. Extended Curriculum – In the startup years of NCLB, federal funds flowed into schools to promote reading and math improvement, yet important subjects may have been neglected by some schools.
    Action: Under ESSA, the focus can return to a holistic curriculum including not only traditional academic subjects, but also music and the arts. Now may be the time to explore a broader range of instructional materials. For instance, STEM funding gets a boost in the legislation under both Title II and Title IV funding. Instructional program options for social studies and STEM can accelerate learning and expand critical skillsets needed for college and career readiness. Ensure a well-rounded education by evaluating newer blended and digital programs like Music Studio interactive music curriculum, and Inspire Science for K-5 students.
  2. Specialized Improvements – Districts gain an opening to excel by designing new systems that reach far more children, with localized intervention strategies that meet their needs and those of the schools. And, schools can leverage up to 7 percent of all their Title I funds for school improvement, up from 4 percent in the current law.
    Action: ESSA requires that state accountability systems incorporate a measure of student growth. It’s predicted that many schools will increase the focus on growing all students to proficiency—not only boosting the low-performing kiddos. Strong intervention and supplemental curriculum programs for reading and math can support the ESSA-mandated comprehensive improvement plan in schools where subgroups are chronically underperforming.

    Tiered interventions (RTI and MTSS) can help low-income students, dual language learners, special education, and other subgroups gain grade-level performance. Consider only research-proven curriculum programs that show solid evidence of improving student achievement with the underperforming subgroups. And, choose programs that contain inclusive and accessible assessments for students with disabilities. Direct Instruction (DI) is one methodology proven to lift achievement that can be part of an evidence-based plan to help particular groups of students who are falling behind or chronically underperforming. DI programs like Reading Mastery, Connecting Math Concepts, and alternative core basal programs like SRA Open Court Reading, are legacy-proven to assist with turnaround efforts.

  3. Data-driven Assessments – ESSA encourages the use of computer adaptive testing, and stipulates that information and data is no longer just collected and reported, but applied to personalize learning, empower decision making and transform educational progress for higher student outcomes.
    Action: Summative assessments will continue to be required, and states will soon submit plans for interim testing to monitor students’ progress. Educational leaders need to ensure their data-driven programs can inform state and local decision making. Curriculum-aligned assessment programs should assist teachers with daily decisions to help each student master concepts and develop competencies. They should help principals evaluate the types of professional development needed for staff improvement. Choose digital programs with dashboards that capture information, redirect curriculum content to close the gap on achievement gaps, drive closed-loop performance reporting, and provide transparency for teachers, parents and other stakeholders. One option is the Acuity (3-8) college and career readiness adaptive assessment solution. Another is Engrade (K-12), an assessment solution providing configurable, district-wide benchmark assessments and comprehensive analytics.
  4. Digital Learning – ESSA contains a momentous new statutory authority for states and districts to pursue innovative educational technology strategies. Title IV states that schools can use up to 15 percent of the funding they receive to improve the use of technology (ESSA’s authors included this cap to keep schools from spending all their Title IV dollars on hardware investments).
    Action: With a digital infrastructure increasingly in place, including through the FCC’s revamped E-Rate program, digital innovation and digital learning solutions are transforming the teaching and learning experience. The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants provide a giant $500 million block, and schools can use up to 60 percent of funds for “the effective use of technologies”.

    Grants such as the i3 (Investing in Innovation) Development Grant, solutions that have strong STEM, digital and research-based components fit the bill. Many grantees are assigning up to 20 percent of their awards to conducting evaluations of evidence-based claims. Plan to test digital strategies, hybrid and blended learning, interactive learning resources, and digital content in your classrooms. Some of the programs in this category include Thrive (Grades 3-8), ALEKS (K-12), Number Worlds (PreK-8), SRA FLEX Literacy (3-12), SRA Open Court Reading (PreK-3), StudySync (6-12), Inspire Science (K-5), Learnsmart (6-12), and Engrade (K-12).

  5. Academic Standards – High academic performance standards like the Common Core are required, but the states govern the adoption and implementation of their own standards.
    Action: Districts should continue to choose high quality, proven standards-based materials such as textbooks, online resources and worksheets. Select curriculum programs which are flexible enough to be customized, to align specifically to individual state standards. High standard like Common Core are not going away; in fact, 36 states have increased the rigor of their standards since 2013, while only five made them less rigorous. Deploying challenging programs like Wonders (PreK-5) for core English Language Arts (ELA) instruction connects students to core standards, and builds strong literacy foundations. For math options, Everyday Mathematics (K-6) helps students achieve mastery of the CCSS by continually reinforcing math concepts through real-world applications and learning progressions; while McGraw-Hill My Math (PreK-5) provides the rigor, personalization, and engagement students need to be successful with your state standards.
  6. Individualized Instruction – ESSA strongly encourages personalizing education. And, districts identified for improvement will likely have access to state funding including up to 3 percent of their Title I allocations for direct Students Services providing personalized learning activities.
    Action: ESSA supports competency-based, student-centered learning including mastery-based approaches. Blended, adaptive and personalized learning allow students to learn at their own pace. They provide more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences, especially for struggling students. Incorporate proven personalization and individualized instruction solutions into your increasingly blended curriculum. For example, Number Worlds (PreK-8) helps struggling learners in Response to Intervention Tiers 2 and 3 achieve math success and quickly brings them up to grade level by intensively targeting the most important standards. Likewise, SRA FLEX Literacy (3-12) offers personalized learning for diverse readers at all skills levels using an ESSA-aligned Universal Design for Learning framework. Last, student-centered, interactive digital resources personalize learning for students using WonderWorks (K-6 intervention) and Building Blocks (PreK-8 supplemental)

  7. Curriculum Resources – The law increases the diversity of approaches and materials used in classrooms. It expressly allows states and local education agencies to use funding under Title IV to develop or acquire open educational resources (OER), available in the public domain or released under an IP (intellectual property) license for reuse.
    Action: Districts are free to design programs that work best for them. Some OER resources are fantastic and convey the type of rigor found in more costly, proven courses. But, educators often find the materials and resources are poorly curated, patchy in quality, and lacking in publisher and professional development support. Student diagnostics and performance monitoring may be lacking as well. ESSA is asking schools to make a good-faith effort to use evidence-based programs—defined as an activity, strategy, or intervention that shows a statistically significant effort on improving students’ or other relevant outcomes. It makes sense to consider programs which are already research-proven and widely deployed in many school environments, to implement a more direct route to higher performance.
  8. Literacy Boost – ESSA calls for significant changes to literacy funding and programs, which districts and states will need to address. What’s more, Title I funds can be used above the 40% low-income threshold, if the proposed use of funds will strongly impact student achievement.
    Action: ESSA authorizes Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN), calling for states to develop or enhance comprehensive, evidence-based instruction for PreK-12 in high-need areas. Districts will likely move to support equitable education by implementing personalized blended and digital literacy solutions that increase reading achievement among struggling learners. Take a look at core and supplemental programs and for allocating additional Title I funds—these could include programs like Wonders (PreK-5) core ELA and SRA FLEX Literacy (3-12) for supplemental reading instruction and support.
  9. English Language – For the first time, states must include English-language proficiency as one of three required academic indicators in school accountability systems, and it must occur within 5 years for each student. What’s more, accountability for English Language (EL) instruction under ESSA is now moved to Title I, with funding streams coming from both Title I and Title III.
    Action: As states take over most of the responsibility for ensuring that EL populations gain increasing instructional support, the number of EL learners will continue to grow—yet the funding per pupil will only nominally increase. Educators will need to maximize their investment by choosing proven curricula programs that drive faster progress in achieving EL proficiency. EL programs provide English Language Learner Literacy, including comprehensive language and Spanish reading solutions for Grades PreK-6.
  10. Early Learning – New funding streams for early childhood afford opportunity to boost young learners’ proficiency in reading and math before 1st grade, as programs are more tightly connected with K-12 schools.
    Action: Support broadening access to early childhood education by adopting PreK programs that provide a strong foundation for success. Engaging early numeracy and literacy programs give children the strongest possible start. Building Blocks and World of Wonders are both grounded in research, developed by nationally respected authorship teams, and built to ensure kindergarten readiness for every child.
  11. Professional Learning – ESSA provides a definition of professional development embedded in research based on standards developed by teachers. It provides tremendous latitude in fostering professional development for educators, including calling for more edtech-related professional development (PD).
    Action: Strive for excellence in building educator capacity through professional development. ESSA directives call for incorporating professional development which is sustained over time, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused. Look for PD already built into core, specialized, and digital learning courses and platforms. Look to the professional expertise of your curriculum advisors to ensure that programs are implemented quickly and efficiently, and instruction is delivered with top rigor. And, strong PD in your digital edtech programs enables teachers to better support the implementation and academic success of digital technology projects, and lift student achievement. For instance, the Professional Learning Environment (PLE) for grades K-12 gives teachers instant access to a range of resources for mastering the programs they use every day. The comprehensive PLE empowers teachers to control their own professional learning, from implementation onward.

ESSA will help build on essential progress made in education over recent years. Just look at the record high graduation rate of 82 percent, major expansion of high-quality preschools, and recent positive action in the lowest-performing schools.

States are now responsible for making sure every student succeeds. This is a tall order which can only be fulfilled by employing strong curriculum and assessment supports to ensure that we prepare every child for college, a well-paying career, and responsible and prolific citizenship. See this ESSA FAQ to find out more about three of the top issues under ESSA: school interventions, English Learner education, and digital learning.

By Dawn Haskins-Powell, McGraw-Hill Education

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