New education bill good news for Philly schools

It will give students the chance to show growth outside of testing.

PaigeGross_colorWhile things have looked pretty grim for the Philadelphia School District for the past few years, a new bill, signed by President Barack Obama in December, might mean brighter days are ahead.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind and set new guidelines for testing proficiency in public school curriculums, will leave more discretion to individual states. The bill also has goals of reaching higher rates of high school graduation—especially for students of color—and strengthening STEM education.

This bill, which is the first to get such strong bipartisan support in recent legislative history, will  allow states to target resources to the lowest-performing districts and students.

The NCLB act, which was signed in by then-president George Bush in 2001 also saw bipartisan support at the time it was enacted. It required states to perform standardized testing to receive federal funding.

The goal was to get all children on the same level of preparedness—standards are set by the federal government—in each grade level.

The problem with this goal, as a student in a classroom and as a teacher, is that learning doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone.

While one student may thrive by filling in bubbles on a scantron, others may be stronger at writing essays or verbally explaining their thinking.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right goals,” Obama’s statement about the new bill said. “Making a promise to educate every child with an excellent teacher—that’s the right thing to do, that’s the right goal. Higher standards are right. Accountability is right… But what hasn’t worked is denying teachers, schools, and states what they need to meet these goals.”

Tim Fukawa-Connelly, a professor in the secondary math education department, thinks that while not much about classroom life will change in a day-to-day setting, schools will be more fortunate in being able to define success by their own standards.

For many schools, standardized testing isn’t necessarily a good representation of students’ abilities, especially when the curriculum doesn’t perfectly match what the federal government has deemed important for students to know.

“Minority and low-income students are less likely to have effective teachers than their peers,” the statement released by the White House said, stressing that the act will also allocate the most effective teachers to lower-income areas.

“The level at which we were starting was unworkable,” Fukawa-Connelly said of the School District of Philadelphia, which is unable to keep up with the same standards as Pennsylvania suburban school districts.

Hopefully state representatives will see this new legislation as an opportunity to send extra resources to struggling schools, especially here in Philadelphia.

“Students don’t have to make a set proficiency, they just have to show that they are making progress,” Fukawa-Connelly said.

This, he explained, will mean that all schools will no longer be using the same starting point to determine what proficiency means, especially in environments where there are little resources and a high student-to-teacher ratio.

“[The School District of Philadelphia] is currently starting at 30 percent testing proficiency,” Fukawa-Connelly said. “If they can get to 50 percent? That’s amazing—that’s great.”

The bill will also take pressure off the standardized testing aspect of the proficiency evaluation and let schools decide other ways of proving growing success.

One of the good things that came out of the NCLB act, Fukawa-Connelly said, is that it gave districts data about gaps in student learning and helped identify which students were struggling.

Teachers will have the opportunity to use other in-class work and tests to prove to their schools that students are learning and succeeding.

This initiative is reminiscent of one of Temple’s recent moves—The Temple Option, which gives applicants the choice to include test scores—to make education more readily accessible to those without ample resources. While the new ESSA won’t affect those who have already begun their higher education, universities like Temple will likely begin to see more applicants who are benefiting from less pressure on standardized testing and more emphasis on being a well-rounded student.

It’s exciting to think changes may be coming for school districts in need, like the current state of the School District of Philadelphia. Temple students and those who wish to become educators should recognize these changes will take the focus off meeting one specific definition of success and let students be in school to do what they’re there to do—learn.

Paige Gross can be reached at or on Twitter @By_paigegross

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