Blended Learning, Professional Development Make Gains in ESEA Overhaul

In a shift away from policies enacted with NCLB, Congress' latest rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act puts some distance between the federal government and local schools. It also creates $1.65 billion in "enrichment" grants for tech-related education programs, including blended learning, STEM education and teacher professional development.

States are the big stars in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the prominence of Race to the Top and college- and career-ready standards is gone. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by a vote of 359 to 64. This is a remake of what was formerly known as No Child Left Behind and a tweaking of the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 passed by the U.S. Senate in July. Now the measure heads back to the Senate, where it's expected to be approved in its reworked form and then signed into law by President Obama, probably before the end of the year.

In mid-November a House and Senate conference committee reached agreement on a compromise proposal between the House-passed Student Success Act and the Senate-passed Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S. 1177). At the time Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said in a press release that the new "framework" for ESEA replaces a "failed approach with a new approach that will reduce the federal role, restore local control, and empower parents."

This week's vote was truly bipartisan; 181 Democrats and 178 Republicans voted for passage. Those who voted against the measure were all Republican representatives.

S. 1177, which runs 1061 pages, puts a lot of responsibility for decision-making related to testing, poor performing schools and education funding into the presumably waiting arms of the states. It also removes the concept of waivers, which had come into vogue under the current administration as a way to release states from having to adhere to certain U.S. Department of Education regulations while still pushing them to undertake education reform.

Moving Away from NCLB
ESSA swings the pendulum away from No Child Left Behind, put in place in 2001 during the George W. Bush era and ramped up in new directions under Barack Obama's watch. That version of ESEA expanded the federal government's influence in schools through mandated state testing, whose results had funding consequences.

When ESSA goes into effect, annual testing in math, language arts and science will still be required, at least in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and results will have to be publicly reported; but what happens with those results after that is left up to the states to decide.

Also, the bill requires states to intervene in the bottom 5 percent of their schools, and in high schools failing to graduate a third or more of their students or where specific groups of students consistently underperform. But states will be in charge of figuring out how to identify low performers and working with those districts to develop intervention and improvement plans.

Early childhood education gets a push by ESSA; however, codification of the various programs moves from the U.S. Department of Education over to Health & Human Services.

Ed Tech & Enrichment Grants
On the technology front, ESSA funds "student support and academic enrichment grants," which, among other purposes, will be used to "support the effective use of technology: in order to improve the "academic achievement and digital literacy of all students."

Blended and personalized learning get nods in the measure. Section 4109 lays out the expectation that school systems will use some portion of their funding for activities that support "the effective use of technology." Those activities could include:

  • Providing professional development to educators for personalizing learning "to improve student academic achievement";
  • Using technology in the classroom for assessments and "blended learning strategies";
  • Carrying out "blended learning projects," such as developing new instructional models, purchasing "digital instructional resources," delivering professional development, and making "one-time information technology purchases";
  • Training teachers and school leaders on the use of technology to improve student outcomes related to STEM; and
  • Giving students in "rural, remote and underserved areas" resources to allow them to take advantage of "high-quality digital learning experiences, digital resources and access to online courses taught by effective educators."

The enrichment grants under which these technology initiatives fall will be funded at $1.65 billion for fiscal year 2017 and $1.6 billion for subsequent years through 2020.

21st Century Learning
The bill also invests between $1 billion and $1.1 billion each year through fiscal year 2020 for creation of "21st century community learning centers," which are intended to provide other forms of academic enrichment activities for students. Those could include tutoring services; technology education; math, science, career and technical programs; and internships.

Assessment Still Emphasized but Shifted to States
Assessment — and competency-based learning — gets attention in ESSA — with a barb directed at the work of the Common Core standards and state testing consortia Smarter Balanced and PARCC. The bill's language lays out a multi-year window in which states can run "innovative assessment system" pilots to experiment with everything out there right now: competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim tests, cumulative year-end exams or performance-based assessments that combine into an annual summative determination for a student. That testing "may" be administered through online tests, or it could be handled through student demonstration of "mastery or proficiency" and allow for "differentiated student support based on individual learning needs." This kind of "innovative assessment flexibility" pleased the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), which last spring, had joined 22 other groups in requesting the inclusion of that in the ESEA reauthorization.

Here's the sticking point: ESSA stipulates that once a state has gone through its "demonstration" period for assessments, it has to prove that the testing system works through progress reports and other indicators. If the proof isn't there by the end of the pilot window, the state has to try something else. However, ESSA noted, what the alternative turns out to be is still up to the state. The secretary of the U.S. Department of Education doesn't need to see it.

Master Teacher Corps
ESSA also funds a new STEM "Master Teacher Corps." The idea is to encourage states to support effective teachers and teaching practices in science, technology, engineering and math "by recognizing, rewarding, attracting, and retaining" STEM teachers in high-need and rural schools. Those who make the grade could be given the opportunity to "work with one another in scholarly communities," take part in or lead "high-quality professional development" and earn extra money.

The measure mandates a study by the Institute of Education Sciences on the impact of access to digital learning resources outside of the classroom — what the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) referred to as the "homework gap" study, to determine how many students are "unconnected or under-connected" in their homes.

Measured Enthusiasm: Not the Bill 'We would Have Written'
Many organizations have given half-hearted approval to this latest rendition of ESEA and tried to put a good face on their overall concerns. Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, acknowledged in a statement that ESSA "strikes a balance" between the needs of serving "all students" and pushing to close achievement gaps with a measure of flexibility that will allow "state and local actors to meet local needs."

While emphasizing that the bill wasn't the one they "would have written," 37 education and civil rights groups, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, issued a joint statement calling ESSA "an improvement" over the version of legislation that has been circulating for nearly a year. "There are provisions in the proposed legislation that we believe will help remedy deep-seated disparities in our nation's schools," the statement noted.

However, the organizations warned, control at the state and local levels have "too often been an obstruction to narrowing disparities, and we will not let jurisdictions with millions of dollars in federal aid off the hook for failing to equitably and adequately educate all children." The groups referred to the bill's passage as a "call to action for parents and stakeholders in every school district and every state to hold decision-makers and administrators accountable for educating all students, and to demand a seat at the table as this law is implemented in their communities."

While enthusiasm across the board is taking a measured tone, compromise was essential for ultimate passage of ESEA, noted the Alliance for Excellent Education's vice president of policy and advocacy, Phillip Lovell. In a recent Alliance "Federal Flash," Lovell explained that several aspects of the latest proposal made the legislation "more appealing" than earlier versions. "For example, the conference agreement includes accountability and support for the lowest-performing ... schools, " a "priority" for the Obama administration, along with focus on high schools with high failure rates and low-performing groups of students. The agreement also includes policies "favored by Republicans," such as the removal of many federal education programs and "new limitations on the [ED's] authority," which Lovell called a major priority for Republicans, who feel that the department "overstepped its authority in requiring various policies in exchange for its waivers from NCLB."

The Department of Education also issued a fact sheet that offered a positive spin on ESSA. "The bipartisan bill passed by the House includes many of the key reforms the Administration has called on Congress to enact and encouraged states and districts to adopt in exchange for waivers offering relief from the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)," the sheet stated. "The bill rejects the overuse of standardized tests and one-size-fits-all mandates on our schools, ensures that our education system will prepare every child to graduate from high school ready for college and careers, and provides more children access to high-quality state preschool programs."

As Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, concluded in a pithy summary of the various changes introduced by the new ESEA, "The action is finally moving out of Washington. In my view, it's about time. But as Uncle Ben told Spider-Man, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' Let's make sure the states exercise that responsibility sensibly."