States and districts must fulfill the promise of more equity in education offered by new education law

For many of the nation’s schools, this week feels distinctly festive. Congress finally passed, and the President signed, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), wrapping up a nearly eight year effort.

There’s much to celebrate in the new bill. First, no more No Child Left Behind, the 2001 iteration of ESEA that shifted our flagship federal education legislation from a civil rights law supporting the nation’s neediest schools and students to one that penalized those same schools for failing to meet higher standards, while withholding many of the supports they need to do so. Second, the newly reauthorized law returns key aspects of education policy to state and local authority, making it easier for schools to target interventions and resources based on their unique contexts. Third, by incorporating such strategies as pre-kindergarten and wraparound supports for disadvantaged students, it recognizes that students’ needs—and education itself—extend beyond K-12 and the school day.

At the same time, skeptics rightly point out that many of the states and localities celebrating their renewed authority have historically used that authority pretty badly. Under ESSA, state and local education agencies must practice due diligence and recognize that with increased flexibility and autonomy comes increased responsibility. The skeptics also point out that ESSA is still a far cry from what is needed to level the education playing field. Substantially improving education and narrowing gaps requires, at a minimum, funding levels that enable ESSA to serve as a real equalizer and implementation that extends that equalizing potential at the state and local levels.

While collecting and disaggregating test score data serves important research purposes and can help diagnose problems, using test score data to help identify effective policy fixes requires understanding the multiple inputs and outputs driving those scores. States and districts should use ESSA’s new flexibility to adapt strategies from those that have pioneered valid, productive accountability systems that take those factors into account. They should ensure that their new capacity to consider a wider variety of students’ educational experiences beyond test scores from math and language arts assessments leads to use of metrics like student engagement to drive continuous improvement of schools, and not to the extension of high-stakes decisions based on students’ levels of perseverance or creativity.

ESSA enhances federal support for strategies that build extra time and enrichment into the school day and year, whether in the form of full-service community schools, Promise Neighborhoods, or programs that use 21st Century Learning Center grants to provide wraparound supports. Schools, districts, and states should look to successful examples of how adding time to the school day for teacher planning and collaboration, hands-on activities, field trips, tutoring, and mentoring can boost educators’ effectiveness and satisfaction, and students’ engagement and achievement.

As the first ESEA reauthorization to include an explicit early education program, ESSA reflects the reality that elementary school success stems from early education opportunity. We should seize the growing momentum behind early childhood education, and the new support for it built into ESEA, to leverage all available tools and resources at the federal, state, and local levels. That would help ensure that every child has access to high-quality early education and that their parents are equipped to support and enhance it. If New York City, with all its budgetary and bureaucratic constraints, can expand the number of children it is serving in full-day, high-quality programs from 13,000 to 70,000 in two years, there is no reason that other districts (and states) should not aim much higher than they currently do. Failing to do so is making a sane life, and decent work, virtually impossible for an increasing share of American families. Yet ESSA, like many other laws supporting early care and education, falls far short of what is needed to enable all families to function well and their children to enter school ready to learn.

Finally, ESSA does not even touch on two major impediments to academic success: inequitable school funding systems and racial and economic segregation. But states and districts should not take this as a green light to continue to compound the barriers facing low-income and minority students. Rather, they should assess the negative impacts of property tax-based systems and craft equitable funding schemes as New Jersey has done (to great success); as California is working to do; and as Massachusetts recently pledged to explore. Nor should states and districts turn a blind eye to schools struggling to serve a concentration of students that William Julius Wilson termed The Truly Disadvantaged and that the Chicago Consortium for School Research called “students living under extraordinary circumstances.” A variety of options, from magnet schools to more progressive zoning measures, can help deconcentrate school poverty and reduce student isolation.

Authorization and signature into law is just the first step to successful legislation. The ultimate success of legislation is threefold: implementation and guidance are critical in translating statute into reality, and adequate funding is critical to ensuring that ESSA isn’t set up to fail from the get-go. The state chiefs have already vowed not to back down from accountability. Let’s take this as a sign that, in the shift from No Child Left Behind (which left so many behind), we are moving toward an America in which every child can actually succeed.

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign. Noelle Ellerson is Associate Executive Director for Policy & Advocacy at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.