Can ESSA Repair What "No Child Left Behind" Left Behind?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law on December 10th, 2015, has been heralded as the beginning of a new age in education reform.  

When I consider the great opportunity ESSA affords, I think about our most vulnerable student populations. Will this give them a better chance to succeed? I recall the time I spent as a teacher in a district school that was struggling, and the complex dynamics I observed surrounding the implementation of NCLB - in particular, the nature of the relationship between district leadership and “failing” schools.  Will stakeholders in and around my former workplace have a different experience once ESSA is in place?

I hope so.

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As a public school teacher at an underperforming school, there was nothing quite so unpleasant as having a surprise classroom visit from “the district.”  In she would walk, unannounced: the universally dreaded literacy representative of the district’s office for failing schools. The door would open and my heart would start to pound.  Students would immediately sit up straighter, scribble their notes faster.  They knew what this meant.

The representative would say nothing as she circled the room, observing my instruction and flipping through my lesson plans, student work folders, and test results binders. After a few minutes, she would be gone, and we could all breathe again.  A student would comment with some variation of, “You did good, Miss! Don’t worry!”

After that, it was a waiting game. The representative would relay her feedback to the principal, the AP and my department head.  Any teacher who had previously experienced these observation days knew to fear this part the most. Feedback from representatives tended to be surface-level, unpredictable and negative. Rather than assessing the quality of instruction or student work, representatives in my district often fixated on what was most easily observable: the wording of lesson objectives, the formatting of lesson plans or “common boards,” the kinds of posters hung around the room, whether students were in small groups or in whole group, etc.  This trend wasn’t helped by the fact that most observers lacked any instructional background relevant to the standards being taught.  Standardization was also emphasized, as teachers were expected to align very closely with the district instructional guide and with other teachers of the same subject and grade level.

In her conversation with my principal about the performance of my department, she would take a minute or two to address my classroom. Ms. Whitener was not teaching to the correct vocabulary standard. Ms. Whitener’s board stated “identify” rather than “analyze.” Ms. Whitener did not demonstrate the gradual release model at the correct time.  An hour or two after the meeting, a security guard would knock on my door mid-lesson.

“The principal would like to see you.”

Heart pounding again, I would leave my students and take the walk of shame down to the main office.  My principal would explain across his desk that I needed to “push rigor” in my classroom by sticking more closely to the “best practices” of the district guide—a curriculum packet which focused heavily on drill-and-kill test preparation and whose content was “curated” (watered down) for low performing schools.  He would inform me that he’d be coming into my class later that week, and he expected to see the discussed changes reflected in my instruction.

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I would walk back to my classroom, reproached and discouraged.  I knew I had to offer my students much more than the kind of oversimplified instruction they were used to, and yet it seemed that the more I oriented my class around critical thinking, the more pushback I endured.  How could I appease my administration and district and give my students a truly meaningful learning experience at the same time? Most importantly, how could I make sure my job wouldn’t be in jeopardy?  

These were the questions that kept me up at night, and unfortunately, my experience was far from unique.  ‘Failing’ schools in my district rarely received positive feedback from representatives; after one area was mastered, a new set of transgressions would be highlighted.  It was understood by teachers and school leaders alike that “the district” was to be dreaded and feared, and that the set of high-stakes expectations placed upon the adults in the building was a nonsensical moving target, all but impossible to hit.

The concerns of administrators, coaches and teachers often centered not on teaching and learning, but on observation day theatrics and test-taking environment optimization.  For example, it was common at my school for the entire school to “shut down” for days or even weeks during testing periods.  On these days, all students who were not testing had to remain in their homeroom teacher’s classroom for the duration of the school day, which they normally spent watching movies or playing games on their phones. Students who behaved well during district observations were routinely offered grade bumps. I knew one teacher that would even write random nursery rhymes on all of his student assignments to fulfill a rule that teachers had to offer multi-sentence feedback on all assignments.

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I discuss this aspect of my teaching experience not to place blame on districts or school administrations, but to highlight some of the on-the-ground challenges that result when we take a high-stakes accountability approach to turning around schools.  I witnessed personally the ways in which policy can unwittingly breed a culture of fear among the leaders and stakeholders that matter most in schools, and can incentivize - officially and covertly - some of the right things but oftentimes many of the wrong ones as well.

As I reflect on the significant power that ESSA will hand to states and districts, my hope is that districts like the one I worked in are able to dismantle some of the existing structures of fear-based accountability, and instead build relationships that are based not on punishing schools but on empowering them, not on surface-level changes but on the deeper work of improving the school structure, quality of instruction and wrap-around student support. If we can master that, then perhaps ESSA really can usher in a new age of opportunity for the students that need it most.

-Christin Whitener