ESSA Gives States More Control, Targets Needs of Struggling Readers

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January 2016

By NCLD Public Policy & Advocacy Team:  Lindsay Jones (Director of Public Policy & Advocacy), Kim Hymes (Associate Director of Federal Outreach), Meghan Casey (Policy Research & Advocacy Associate), Lyn Pollard (Parent Advocacy Manager), and Rachel Norman (Public Policy & Advocacy Program Assistant)

essa-signing-banner cropOn December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), officially replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). While ESSA maintains some of the policies we have known for the last 13 years under NCLB, it also marks an important departure from some of the most controversial issues that have become part of the national dialogue about education.

In the October Examiner, we shared with you an overview of the House and Senate bills to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. This fall, members of each chamber reached a compromise agreement—what is now called the Every Student Succeeds Act. On December 2, the House passed ESSA with a vote of 359-64. Just a week later, on December 9, the Senate passed ESSA with a vote of 85-12. The following day, President Obama signed ESSA stating, “The law comes at an important moment. Over the past seven years, the good news is that our students have made real strides. … But we’re all here because we know there’s a lot more work to be done.”

What’s included in this law?

The new law represents a compromise between policymakers who wanted a greater federal role and those who wanted to provide more flexibility to States and school districts. Importantly, ESSA incorporates many key provisions that help to ensure kids with disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) will be included, rather than excluded, from educational opportunity. ESSA includes several important provisions:

  1. Focuses on improving literacy instruction through two new initiatives that provide (a) evidence-based strategies for educators and parents to effectively teach reading and writing to all students including those who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and (b) resources to identify and intervene when students are struggling;
  2. Keeps students with learning and attention issues on track to receive a regular high school diploma by allowing only students with the most significant cognitive disabilities—1% of the total student body—to be eligible to take the Alternate Assessment based on Alternate Achievement Standards;
  3. Requires annual assessments in reading and math in third through eighth grade and once in high school to give parents, educators, and policymakers a better understanding of how a child is progressing and how schools are serving students overall;
  4. Provides for transparent public reporting on key metrics related to high-quality education, disaggregated by subgroup (including students with disabilities), such as performance on annual assessments, access to advanced coursework, and measures of school climate;
  5. Requires school districts to implement evidence-based interventions when students with disabilities consistently underperform and to evaluate schools based on criteria that strongly emphasize academic performance, in a state-designed accountability system;
  6. Encourages innovation in education by supporting personalized learning, multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), and universal design for learning (UDL), as well as integrating technology and competency-based education initiatives.

What’s the “new” accountability system?

ESSA moves away from the prescriptive mandates of NCLB and attempts to strike a balance between increasing state and local control of education while also maintaining important federal civil rights protections for underserved students, such as students with disabilities. To do this, ESSA allows states and districts to tailor their education systems to meet the needs of their students, but sets federal guardrails and minimum requirements that states must meet. Therefore, states will have greater control over their accountability systems, with some oversight from the federal government.

How will ESSA impact students with disabilities such as dyslexia?

ESSA includes several provisions that will positively impact all students. Among these are transparency of data, implementing evidence-based instruction in underperforming schools, and continued high expectations for the performance of all students. ESSA also provides an opportunity to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for children with learning and attention issues. In particular, ESSA includes two new, multi-million dollar initiatives that will allow teachers to hone their expertise in supporting children who struggle with reading (e.g., students with dyslexia).

Literacy Education Results for the Nation (LEARN) is a competitive grant program, meaning that states must apply for the funds. LEARN will provide funds to help high-need districts, including those where many students are reading and writing below grade-level. The program’s comprehensive nature means that it will support literacy learning for children from birth to grade 12. These funds will be used to ensure that districts can provide high-quality professional development for educators to improve literacy instruction for struggling readers and writers. The program also intends to focus on English language learners and students with disabilities.

ESSA also establishes a comprehensive center for “students at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability.” Examples of this type of challenge include “dyslexia impacting reading or writing, or developmental delay impacting reading, writing, language processing, comprehension, or executive functioning.” The purpose of this center is to identify evidence-based assessment tools and instruction strategies for students at risk. In addition, it would provide families with information and educators with professional development to understand and support these students. Although the center is established in law, it will take some time—possibly a year—to become fully operational since the U.S. Department of Education will now begin a process of choosing who will operate the center and collecting resources for parents and educators.

Looking ahead

ESSA takes some important first steps toward improving literacy in our schools. However, much more is needed to prepare all students for success. With the changes ESSA brings, parents must be ready to advocate for their children—and for all students with disabilities—at the state and local levels. There is still much work to be done to ensure that decisions are made and systems are designed with students with disabilities in mind. Parents are a critical partner in this advocacy work.

NCLD will be working with parents and advocates across the country to advocate for students with disabilities as states begin to implement their new systems. To get involved and stay informed, you can sign up for email updates from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, check out our policy and advocacy blog, follow our advocacy team on Twitter, or see our Facebook page. It’s not too late to get involved, and your voice is essential as ESSA implementation moves forward!

NCLD Public Policy & Advocacy Team
Lindsay Jones, Director of Public Policy & Advocacy
Kim Hymes, Associate Director of Federal Outreach
Meghan Casey, Policy Research & Advocacy Associate
Lyn Pollard, Parent Advocacy Manager
Rachel Norman, Public Policy & Advocacy Program Assistant

IDA thanks NCLD for graciously providing our readers with this helpful summary and timely analysis of this important development. In this new ESSA era, IDA will continue to actively promote effective teaching approaches and related research-based educational intervention strategies for students with dyslexia as outlined in IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Watch your inbox for future Examiner issues to stay abreast of this and other important topics and issues.

Opinions expressed in Examiner articles and/or via links do not necessarily reflect those of IDA.

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