Federal government has a continued role in implementing ESSA

In December, I was honored to be at the White House when President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – the reauthorization of our nation’s education law that was passed with bi-partisan support in Congress and broad support from across the country. At the bill signing, President Obama called it “a Christmas miracle.” He recognized, as have many educators, that the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind was no longer working for all students. The time had come to update our path for ensuring every child has access to a high quality education and graduates career and college ready, regardless of race, national origin or family income.

Two months after the enactment of ESSA, a new debate is beginning about the federal role as the new law is implemented. ESSA clearly provides more authority to states and local school districts to make key education decisions, and that’s a good thing. At Teach For America, we have seen first-hand that context matters—each community has its own rich history and assets that we must embrace as we work to empower and educate our students.

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We also know that a high bar of achievement must exist for all students nationwide. Whether we are talking about schools in urban or in rural areas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where I grew up, or Phoenix, where I taught, we must hold that high bar constant. From classrooms on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to those in Newark, New Jersey, we know there are certain ways in which all kids need to be prepared. That is why there must be critical federal guardrails put in place to ensure that states’ accountability goals include student proficiency, English-language proficiency and graduation rates, for example. It’s also why states must be required by the federal government to demonstrate transparent and accurate subgroup academic performance as we aspire to reach educational equity and excellence for all.  

The future of tens of millions of students and billions of public dollars hang in the balance. While Washington should find ways to allow for and reward innovation at the state and local levels, it must also utilize all of its tools to make sure that the funding that flows through our public education system is supporting true college and career readiness for all children – especially those most in need.

Above all, government at all levels must listen to and consult with the parents, students, teachers, tribal leaders and community leaders who are most affected by these changes. This is the right thing to do and ESSA requires it.

We must not forget that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which ESSA updates, is a civil rights law. It was enacted by President Johnson in 1965 and recognized that education is a civil right, critical to social and economic access. We must continue to ensure access to this right by maintaining critical federal protections while empowering states and local school districts to innovate and thrive.

Beard is a former teacher and the CEO of Teach For America.

 

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