I’ve published a few posts on the new U.S. K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed last December to replace the badly flawed No Child Left Behind. Some have pointed out potential problems with the bill — “The successor to NCLB has, it turns out, problems of its own” while others have slooked at some of the positive changes — “Why many high-stakes testing foes see ‘modest’ progress in ESSA.” Here’s a new post with a  more optimistic view of the potential for the ESSA to improve public education. It was written by Martin Blank, president of the nonprofit Institute for Educational Leadership, and director of the IEL’s Coalition for Community Schools.

The post above this one on The Answer Sheet is by a professor who expresses why he is pessimistic about the future of public schools in the United States. These different takes on the future represent the wide range of thinking in the education world about where the country’s public education system is headed.

By Martin Blank

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) differs significantly from its widely discredited predecessor, No Child Left Behind. The differences give reason for hope to those who despised NCLB’s emphasis on test scores.

Some of the differences are subtle, some blunt. For example, ESSA substitutes “equitable” for NCLB’s “equal,” a seemingly subtle change but a meaningful one. An equity focus recognizes that the playing field is not level in public education; it acknowledges the reality—in a society where resources are not distributed equally, some students start with less and need more support to reach their potential.

ESSA does not shrink from the term ‘opportunity gap,’ which NCLB never acknowledged. That’s important because low-income students, particularly students of color, are on the wrong side of this gap. They often have less access to high-quality early learning programs and subsequent enrichment experiences that help build the social capital they’ll need to succeed in college and careers. Furthermore, many of these students come to schools with dilapidated facilities, overcrowded classrooms, limited access to technology, and inadequately prepared teachers. Attending to the opportunity gap is essential to the fair, equitable, and high quality education ESSA seeks.

“Offering a well-rounded education” and “enriched instruction” are terms found in ESSA, a significant step away from the narrowed curriculum of NCLB and in the direction of deeper learning. The law says a well-rounded education includes volunteerism, community involvement, music and the arts, civic and environmental education, and other experiences that engage students.

While NCLB doesn’t mention “improving school conditions for learning,” it’s front and center in ESSA. This should encourage state and district leaders to think proactively about the opportunities and supports that children need to succeed, and they can work with families and communities to create these conditions.

“Engaging families” is an ESSA goal. Not so with NCLB. Many community-based organizations and community organizing groups have valuable expertise in engaging families, and the law authorizes support for groups with a record of success in this arena.

The new law also makes at least six promising concrete changes:

Power to States and Districts: They are now in charge of defining accountability measures and determining how to intervene in low-performing schools. With power comes responsibility, meaning that state and local governments can no longer offer the excuse that they are complying with federal rules. There’s reason to worry that states and local leaders may not fulfill their responsibilities to our most vulnerable children, but we know who’s in charge, and they cannot hide in the shadow of Washington.

It’s Now More Than Just Test Scores: Under NCLB, schools were judged solely on their test scores.  While ESSA continues to highlight academic measures, it requires states to broaden the accountability framework by including at least one non-academic indicator in their accountability systems (e.g., student engagement, educator engagement, or school climate and safety). That opens the door for serious conversations about the multiple factors that influence student learning

“Comprehensive Support” Is In; “Quick Fixes” Are Out:  The primary focus under NCLB was on “corrective action through specified interventions” in the bottom 5 percent of schools, a phrase that all but guaranteed quick fixes (that inevitably failed). State leaders will now determine how to use the 7 percent set-aside in Title I to improve these schools and support other low performing subgroups. ESSA allows state leaders to provide the sustained support that is necessary for continuous improvement; it balances accountability with support.

“We’re In This Together”: ESSA opens the door for more engagement with all sorts of “stakeholders” at the state and local level. Educators and parents must be consulted, but ESSA gives education leaders wide latitude to involve others. Title IV of the law specifically identifies community-based organizations, local government (law enforcement, juvenile court, child welfare, public housing, and others with expertise) as resources.  The men and women in charge have the opportunity to cast a wide net. We should make sure that happens, particularly as it relates to the Needs Assessment which ESSA mandates. Educators will need help transitioning from a system ruled by test scores to one that values non-academic indicators. United Ways, community schools, and other community-based organizations are comfortable with sophisticated needs assessments and can help with the transition.

“Shake, Partner”: The law is replete with references to partners who can help schools fulfill the purpose of ESSA.  It encourages local agencies to contract with various nonprofit groups to offer assistance in areas where they have demonstrated expertise.  Its thrust toward well-rounded, enriching education sets the stage for states and districts to build partnerships with public and private entities that can bring their own resources to the table.

But Always, Always Follow the Money!: ESSA requires states and school districts to review district and school level budgeting in order to identify resource inequities.  This could open the door for serious discussions of adequate, equitable funding mechanisms, a more appealing alternative to constant litigation.  At the same time, advocates must focus on resource inequities in federal funding. Title I funding levels will remain well below what was anticipated for NCLB in 2001; for Title IV, $1.6 billion is authorized, but only $353 million is now appropriated.

So is a new day dawning? Do the provisions of ESSA that embed equity and opportunity in our public schools amount to enough to reinvigorate our public schools?

I see great opportunities. And if we take advantage of them, many of our young people will be in schools where they are surrounded by adults who understand the importance of their social, emotional, physical, civic and ethical development, not just their academic development. These young people will be challenged by a curriculum that is broader, more enriching and more engaging, a curriculum that connects them to the wider world.

The adults in their lives–educators, community members, and professionals from partner organizations–see these young people as problem solvers, the future workers and citizens of our democracy.

And when students and their families need support, the resources from health, social services and youth development groups are easily accessible at the school.

ESSA won’t make any of this happen, of course. For this broad vision to become a reality, educators, families, and community partners must think more boldly about our public schools; they must share accountability. In short, it’s on us, just as it always has been. But ESSA has opened the door, and for that we should be grateful.