The most consequential federal education legislation currently affecting New York was not signed by President Donald Trump, but by his predecessor.
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. It forbade the federal government from imposing education standards like the controversial Common Core, which provided uniform requirements for students in English and math across the country. ESSA maintains a regimen of standardized testing in those two subjects, but allows states to determine their own performance goals and decide how to deal with schools that fall short.
The state Department of Education published a plan in July based on ESSA guidelines, which includes shortening the number of test days for reading and math, using out-of-school suspensions as a marker for student success and easing testing requirements for students learning English as a second language.
The plan was sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to review and sign, and a spokesperson for the governor said that he was still reviewing the proposal. The state Board of Regents is set to vote on the plan at its September meeting.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said her department tried to learn from mistakes made during the widely criticized rollout of the Common Core standards, which spurred many parents to have their children opt out of the new standardized tests.
“ESSA, I believe, is a game changer,” Elia said, because it focuses on improving education instead of simply identifying problems and closing failing schools in response. Elia also described the deliberative process behind creating the proposal and its provisions.
“They’ve been vetted multiple times. We’ve gotten feedback from across the state; we’ve slowed it down, we’ve sped it up,” said Elia, who made her remarks during a panel discussion at City & State’s “On Education” event last month. “I spent a lot of time talking to people across the state so we could come up with a plan,” she said.
In contrast, Elia said that the plan written under the new ESSA standards was responsive to “the variety of situations that we face and the incredible challenges and needs of our students.”
“Our ESSA plan is an action plan. We are not going to be creating a plan that just goes right to the middle, but rather it really takes into consideration all aspects of all needs.” – Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa
Elia noted the importance of equity, and ensuring that the more than 1.1 million students in New York City receive the same quality of education as students in more rural areas.
“Our ESSA plan is an action plan,” added state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, who joined Elia in the panel discussion. “We are not going to be creating a plan that just goes right to the middle, but rather it really takes into consideration all aspects of all needs.”
Rosa criticized the Common Core standards for having been developed without input of stakeholders, eventually leading to many students opting out of standardized testing.
“The intent of this may have been noble, but the way it was done – people went into a backroom full of experts with few fingerprints on this process, and you didn’t have the buy-in and the signatures of the common people,” she explained. According to Rosa, this practice of overlooking input from teachers and parents created “potholes” in the rollout of the program. Elia responded that these issues were more akin to “sinkholes.”
Challenges aside, Rosa and Elia think that their new plan can sidestep some of the issues created by the Common Core standards, due to its focus on accountability to teachers and students. They believe ESSA has provided a template to refocus New York’s educational system on student growth as opposed to politics.
“This board and this commissioner are focused on one thing – at the core of all this work, we have the word children,” Rosa said.