How ESSA Changes No Child Left Behind Strategy

By Gary M. Ratner

September 7, 2016

School boy
This is the second 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, from how ESSA changes NCLB's school improvement and accountability strategies and Congress's apparent rationale to how D.C. should implement ESSA to turn around low-achieving schools. The first week examined the magnitude of the problem as the D.C. Public Schools undergo a search for a new chancellor. The opinions expressed are the author's own. 


When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), in December 2015, media attention was heavily focused on how much the new law was shifting K-12 policy-making authority from the federal government to the states and localities. However, at least equally significantly, ESSA profoundly shifts the federal approach to school improvement and accountability, adopting a virtually opposite theory of change. 

NCLB had implicitly assumed that pressuring Title I schools to raise test scores at pain of being labelled failing and subjected to escalating sanctions would induce them to work harder and do whatever was necessary to dramatically improve learning. This was a false premise because typically low-achieving schools do not have the knowledge, skills, and other resources to turn themselves around on their own.1 

By contrast, ESSA recognizes, in effect, that to turn around low-achieving schools it's necessary for school districts to collaborate with stakeholders to provide them structure, technical assistance, and support for making comprehensive changes in the schools' operations and help them focus on what works.

ESSA adopted two programs to help turn around low-achieving schools in the country

Comprehensive Support and Improvement

The "comprehensive support and improvement" program2 seems to be essentially what Congress developed to replace the escalating sanctions requirements for all Title I schools that fail to make it under NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress and to replace the Race to the Top (RTTT) turnaround models.

But this program takes a radically different approach to seeking to turn around low-achieving schools. It doesn't impose rigid, increasingly harsh sanctions over seven years, as NCLB did, or four strict turnaround models, like RTTT.

Instead, this program requires each local educational agency (LEA), normally a school district, to work with each lowest-achieving school, as identified in section 1111(c)(4)(D), "in partnership with stakeholders (including principals and other school leaders, teachers, and parents) [to] locally develop and implement a comprehensive support and improvement plan for the school to improve student outcomes[.]"

So, far from the top-down, narrow, sanctions-driven approach Congress had mandated in NCLB and RTTT, ESSA requires school districts to closely collaborate, as partners, with stakeholders to prepare and implement a comprehensive plan for improvement.

Beyond that, the plan must (1) be "based on a school-level needs assessment;" (2) include information from an indicator of school quality or student success, not just test scores and graduation rates;(3) describe "resource inequities;" and (4) include interventions that are supported by "evidence-based" practices.

Schoolwide Programs

Under section 1114 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a local educational agency may operate a "schoolwide program[] . . . to upgrade the entire educational program of a school" where at least 40 percent of its students are from low-income families, or that serves an "attendance area" that has at least 40 percent such children, or, if less than 40 percent, that has been granted a waiverby the state.

The improvement process ESSA prescribes for schoolwide programs is analogous to that for comprehensive support programs.There must be a "comprehensive plan" based on a "needs assessment" and prepared with the "involvement" of stakeholders. The plan needs to promote a richer curriculum, may include "professional development [to] improve instruction," and may provide mental health and other services to enhance students' non-academic skills. The plan must be "revised as necessary based on student needs," and, unlike comprehensive support, is to be prepared by "the school" rather than the LEA.

In short, with ESSA, Congress lays out two pathways for DCPS to address its fundamental problem: how to turn around its individual low-achieving schools and dramatically improve learning for their low-income and minority students.

Next week, we'll explore Congress's apparent rationale for shifting its school improvement and accountability strategies and what works to turn around low-achieving schools.

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] Gary M. Ratner, What's Wrong With NCLB? False Premises and Harmful Effects, Huffington Post (March 7, 2011).

[2] ESEA, § 1111(c)(4)(D)(d).