Illusion of ESSA Flexibility Fades as Federal Reviews Clarify Prescriptive Nature of New Education Law

In a recent speech she titled “Tough Love,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said states’ plans for holding schools accountable for progress in student achievement under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are not ambitious enough, lacking innovation, and not taking full advantage of the law’s flexibilities.

While I am certain no state plan is perfect in ambition, innovation and taking full advantage of the law, I feel ESSA has come up short on its promise to return control to states and local school districts.

Through town halls, work groups and a continuous loop of feedback, Kentucky went to work. Parents, students, community members, legislators and educators across the state shared what they most valued and wanted to be included in the new system.

We agreed that our overarching values must have children at the heart of the system. They must have a well-rounded education, not just a test score. All subjects should be valued, all students should have equal access and opportunity, and mastery teaching should be honored and emphasized. Also, a culture of collaboration should be fostered instead of competition among schools and districts.

From these values came the task of arranging the pieces into a useful plan, which would be reviewed by federal committees. With these reviews, it became clear that the law wasn’t as flexible as advertised. It wasn’t the local-control legislation that we expected.

For instance, Kentucky voiced the importance of all subjects but is forced to prioritize math and reading above everything else. Federal law allows us to count science, social studies and writing in the plan, but those subjects must be classified in a way that diminishes their importance. They’re moved to the “other academic indicators” section of our plan.

Writing should have been prioritized in Kentucky’s federal accountability plan along with math and reading. Our state law requires writing to be tested once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. That conflicts with the federal requirement to test all the priority subjects once a year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

This so-called “flexible” federal law also would force Kentucky to implement all “whole-child supports” including counselors, nurses, library/media specialists, family resource/youth service centers, and teachers certified in specialized areas. Particularly in rural Kentucky, the state cannot hold schools accountable for all of those positions, because of a scarcity of resources. We need to be able to prioritize based on school needs, which are different from place to place.

As a result, whole-child supports could not be included our state plan. We will report whole child measures on school report cards, and the results will be appropriately different across schools.  Because the measures are different, the feds do not want them in our overall accountability system. Uniformity is taking precedence over being able to prioritize what’s most important for the communities our schools serve.

While ESSA was publicized as providing more local control, we are being corralled into a one-size-fits-all accountability structure to create uniformity in effort and comparable results. Perhaps we should choose to do this as a nation, but let’s not represent this movement with the illusion of flexibility at the local level.

The framework of ESSA has become so prescriptive that the possibility of innovation can only come through incredible creativity on the parts of states to structure their systems. All the while complicating the structure for an already confused public. Perhaps, in the spirit of democracy, we should guide states and supporting their efforts, instead of prescribing and mandating compliance.

What we may be witnessing is the failing of education’s original aims. After all, education was intended to provide an educated citizenry capable of governing its own actions. The greatest travesty may be that we are being told nearly every move to make to adequately prepare students for success in life.

Unfortunately, federal leaders confused their “framework” for freedom and continued to de-emphasize subjects like science, social studies and other content areas that are needed to prepare students for all careers they might pursue after high school.

Measures of success must be developed locally to adequately address the most urgent and often place-based needs of our students and communities.


Johnny Belcher is the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative’s lead for its Future Ready Assessment Initiative. The Cooperative supports 22 rural school districts in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

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