Congress Enacts New Education Law, But Why ESSA?

By Gary M. Ratner

September 16, 2016

This is the third in an education series about how the District of Columbia could become a national model for improving low-achieving schools under a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Over five weeks, D.C. Bar member Gary M. Ratner, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Citizens for Effective Schools, will explore key issues at D.C. public schools and the potential effects of the new law. In the first week, Ratner examined the magnitude of the problem as the D.C. Public Schools undergo a search for a new chancellor. Last week, he looked at how ESSA changes the No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) school improvement and accountability strategies.

The opinions expressed are the author's own.


When Congress adopted ESSA in December 2015, it did not explicitly explain the basis for its new school improvement and accountability approach. The central rationale, however, seems clear when you look at the nature of expert advice that the congressional education committees received and the language that Congress legislated. In ESSA, Congress was replacing the unfounded and ineffective test-and-punish strategy of NCLB with what has been shown to actually work to turn around low-achieving schools.

ESSA's overall comprehensive, collaborative, and supportive approach to improving low-achieving schools, and many of the specific policies it endorses, is supported by research and experience on successful school turnarounds. For example, in May 2010 I was the lead author of a paper that described the common strategies that underachieving public schools used to improve their performance. (The paper was invited by the House Education and Labor Committee to help prepare it for its May 19, 2010, hearing on "Research and Best Practices on Successful School Turnaround.")

The paper identifies five common elements that low-achieving schools implemented, collectively, to turn themselves around successfully: leadership, instructional improvement, curriculum, school climate, and parent and community involvement and support.Under each element, the paper identifies specific common practices these schools instituted.

Common practices included, for example, (1) providing a leader with a vision for the school to dramatically improve student learning who got buy-in from stakeholders and worked with a leadership team, including key teachers, and (2) mentoring and peer collaboration for teachers.[1] Since a school is a complex organization of many different people—principals, teachers, staff, students, parents, and involved community members—turning around a poorly functioning, low-achieving school isn't easy. It requires significantly changing the expectations, beliefs, and practices of a diverse group of individuals, although people normally resist having to make major changes. In short, a turnaround requires changing the school's culture.

Essential to a successful turnaround is getting the support of these people—the stakeholders—whose expectations, beliefs, and practices need to be changed for the school to improve. For that, it's critical to reach out to them, gain their support for a new vision for the school, and engage key representatives in leadership teams to help lead the changes.

Next week, Ratner will offer his recommendations for implementing ESSA both at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and D.C. Public Schools levels.

Gary Ratner has been working to reform U.S. education law and policy for over 40 years, including vigorously advocating for overhauling NCLB since before it became law in 2002 until ESSA was enacted in 2015. He blogs on education in The Huffington Post.

[1] See Lindsay Hodges Anderson, New Study Examines How High Schools Can Become Exemplary (August 11, 2010) (five steps “underachieving high schools” typically took to dramatically improve student learning); cf. Linda Darling-Hammond, Ruth Chung Wei, Alethea Andree, How High-Achieving Countries Develop Great Teachers, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education – Research Brief (August 2010) (ways to promote effective teacher mentoring, collaboration, professional development, and preparation of curriculum and assessments).