Steven E. Gomes: Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more control

Merced County Office of Education superintendent Dr. Steven E. Gomes speaks about the importance of technology in the classroom.
Merced County Office of Education superintendent Dr. Steven E. Gomes speaks about the importance of technology in the classroom. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

On Dec. 10, the nation’s educators received a Christmas miracle called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It didn’t come from the jolly man in a red suit, but rather from a congressional bipartisan vote.

The ESSA replaces the expired No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and its one-size-fits-all approach to education. Unlike the NCLB, the ESSA leaves accountability mostly up to the states.

The states must submit accountability plans or a measuring stick to the U.S. Department of Education, which will play the role of enforcing the “guardrails” of limited oversight. In fact, the ESSA explicitly prohibits the federal government from interfering in state and local accountability decisions or from requiring specific interventions or improvement strategies.

Educators will welcome less federal government intervention in the educational process. The U.S. Secretary of Education is expressly prohibited from encouraging or forcing a state to use a certain set of standards – i.e. Common Core state standards.

I am confident California will continue teaching the Common Core state standards, but that is a topic for another time.

I am a strong proponent of setting high goals and standards for students. But the NCLB Act set impossible goals creating a national goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Some schools were heralded as Blue Ribbon Schools for their achievements one year then labeled low-performing schools the next year because they had not met the new NCLB goal percentage for that year.

As designed, the process was meant to be punitive and was demoralizing for the educators tasked with delivering those goals – especially in extremely difficult educational environments. I do not think anyone in education is saddened to see No Child Left Behind, left behind.

The ESSA allows states the flexibility to establish “ambitious state-designated long-term goals” with interim measurements of progress. This means the progress students are making as a school district, school and significant sub-groups, like low socio-economic or English learners, will be used to measure success. When adopting the new “state accountability system” or its measuring stick to gauge if school districts are improving, states must consider different academic indicators depending on grade span.

Instead of just looking at test scores, the state must consider the progress that English learners make in language proficiency, high school graduation rates and indicators such as school climate, safety, access and completion of advanced coursework or educator engagement.

California, and the schools in Merced County, are uniquely prepared for the implementation of the ESSA because of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) already put in place by the state under Gov. Jerry Brown. The LCAP enlists a school district’s stakeholders to collaboratively set the district’s educational goals. The LCFF is non-categorical funding, which gives school districts and their boards more control to allocate the funding necessary to implement the district’s educational goals.

The California State Board of Education is in the second year of developing a new accountability system to encompass many of the indicators outlined in the ESSA.

ESSA critics say the new law is too soft on requiring states to adopt high standards and make low-performing schools improve, insisting disadvantaged students stuck in mediocre or poor public schools will lose under the new law. I believe there is great statewide momentum to continue implementing high standards and expectations for all students. There is already a process in place to assist schools unable to make progress as measured when the new accountability process is in place.

I thank Rep. Jim Costa for listening to our concerns about the current system and working hard to reach across the aisle and pass this significant bipartisan legislation.

Steven E. Gomes, Ed.D., is the Merced County superintendent of schools.