Education reform leaves states in charge

New law scales back federal control, keeps standardized tests

A federal education reform law passed in December has educators cautiously hopeful for more local control.

The new law, which replaces a prior unpopular law, scales back federal control of education but leaves many unanswered questions about how the reform will affect Illinois schools.

President Barack Obama acknowledged after signing the new law on Dec. 10, 2015, that the previous law wasn’t working as intended.

“It had gotten stuck, because in part there wasn’t enough flexibility; there weren’t enough resources,” he said.

Understanding the new law requires understanding what it replaces. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, enacted in 2002, established a goal of all students nationwide being proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Primarily aimed at improving school accountability and closing the achievement gap, the law required schools to meet “adequate yearly progress” benchmarks measured by standardized testing results, with escalating penalties for schools which fell short. The 2002 law was an addition to a longstanding federal education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

NCLB ultimately failed to achieve its goal, gaining many detractors along the way for its penalties and emphasis on standardized testing. Teachers tended to see NCLB as forcing them to “teach to the test” rather than teaching what students truly need to know. Likewise, many schools which had made progress overall were penalized when students with disabilities or students learning English as a second language didn’t make the same progress.

The escalating penalties – including things like requiring schools to let students transfer out or replacing teachers and principals – were based on how many consecutive years a school hadn’t reached its goal. Lanphier High School in Springfield faced such penalties, ultimately undergoing several changes with the help of a large federal grant.

Many states received waivers exempting schools from tough NCLB penalties, which critics say recognized the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the law but also undercut its effectiveness. Illinois received a NCLB waiver in 2014.

The replacement for NCLB, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), became law on Dec. 10, 2015. In short, ESSA keeps the same basic framework as the previous law but allows states more autonomy to evaluate schools and decide the consequences for those which miss their benchmarks. Standardized testing will still play a central role in school evaluation under ESSA, but teachers will no longer be evaluated on their students’ test scores.

Tony Smith, the state superintendent for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in a weekly newsletter released shortly after the new law passed that it “will enhance local control and hold educators accountable while also providing more flexibility to meet the unique needs of each student in our state.” A representative of the Illinois State Board of Education could not be reached for further comment by publication.

Doug Wood, superintendent of Ball-Chatham Community Schools, says greater state control will likely mean fewer cookie-cutter solutions passed down from the federal level.

“If we address this at the national level, there’s less opportunity for us to have influence on it,” he said. “Whereas if we address it at the state level, we could have more influence on the discussions. It creates more autonomy.”

Wood says there are “still some things up in the air” for Illinois schools. That’s because the Illinois State Board of Education has many decisions to make now that the federal government has ceded some control to the states. Many of those decisions will be influenced by budget constraints, Wood said.

The new law also creates a pilot program aimed at pushing states toward more equitable funding of education. In return, the law gives school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal “Title 1” funding meant to help high-poverty schools.

Wood says the continued emphasis on standardized testing under the new law is neither good nor bad.

“Assessment has always been a part of what we do,” he said. “It’s a barometer of how well our students are performing. I think the key to all this is the amount of local control we’ll have now.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

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