The promise of the Every Student Succeeds Act

It’s far too soon for anyone to say exactly how the Every Student Succeeds Act will affect American education. But in the wake of its passage, we’re hopeful the new law will deliver on its promise to address one of the toughest challenges we face: enabling more of our students to get a high school diploma.

To be sure, there’s good news these days around graduation rates. The U.S. Department of Education just released a report showing that a higher proportion of America’s students graduated from high school in the 2013 – 2014 school year (82 percent) than ever before, about a one percent increase over the previous year.

{mosads}While the national graduation rate is on a trajectory to reach 90 percent by 2020, we find a much different—and more discouraging—picture among students from low-income households. As GradNation points out, “Low-income students are graduating at a rate that’s almost 15 percentage points below the rate for their non-low-income peers.” Indeed, poverty is by far the most predictive indicator when it comes to low graduation rates. It cuts across all other demographic and social factors, including ethnicity and race.

The question for all of us, then, is: what can we – educators, parents, leaders and people from across the community – do to equip more poor, at-risk students with the tools and support they need to stay in school and graduate? How can we ensure that they will be as prepared as possible to excel in the world beyond graduation?   

ESSA includes at least two new provisions that we think could be enormously helpful.

First, local high schools now must use the graduation rate as one of several measures of success. This provision recognizes something we have emphasized for several years:  that a young person today cannot afford to enter the work force without at least the foundational skills and knowledge that come with a high school diploma. Moreover, our communities and our country suffer when young people don’t finish high school.

With that as a guiding light, more and more groups like ours are identifying and sharing evidence-based approaches that work to keep students in school through graduation. While there are no silver bullets to improving graduation rates, one proven intervention is sustained and substantive help from caring adults willing to support students’ difficult journeys in the classroom and in other parts of their lives. Don’t our students, especially those most at-risk of dropping out, deserve this nation’s most effective prevention and intervention initiatives? 

We have mountains of data to prove that mentoring and guidance can be the key to success, especially for low-income youth who so often wrestle with severe personal and academic challenges.

Secondly, ESSA allows the use of Title I funds, which are specified for the poorest schools and districts, for “integrated student supports,” a broad array of social services that can help at-risk students successfully navigate the barriers they face on the way to graduation.  Title I and new competitive grant programs can give schools and community partners many more options for providing mentoring, parental engagement programs, violence and trauma prevention, drug abuse counseling, and other services proven to reduce dropout rates.

This is important because, even in places where such services exist, they can be fragmented and out of the line of sight of the students who need them most.  What’s needed often are trained, caring adult who in partnership with principals,  teachers, and parents  will identify the most at-risk students and connect them to community programs and services they need to graduate high school career and be post-secondary ready.  That’s the kind of local customization of intervention that so many of our partners have been talking about and putting into practice all over the country.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the first major national education overhaul since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, has the potential to breathe new life into approaches that many groups like ours have recognized as effective and essential for student’s to succeed. But it’s only part of the equation of success. It’s now up to people around the country to seize that opportunity and put its resources to effective use, particularly in communities that need it most. 

Galmiche is president and chief executive officer of the Nine Network of Public Media, which is the national coordinator of American Graduate, public media’s commitment to supporting community-based solutions to the dropout crisis. Cardinali is president of Communities In Schools, Inc., the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, with operations in 25 states and the District of Columbia.


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