The Potential of ESSA to Support Low-income Young Children and Disconnected Youth

Last week, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) or No Child Left Behind Act. The new law, renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), includes provisions that have the potential to advance educational equity for some of our most marginalized youth and young children, if state and local leaders and policymakers seize the opportunity.

One of the pillars of ESSA is the continued use of student data to promote school accountability, and the law contains strong provisions that continue the collection and disaggregation of student achievement and school resource data by race, income, and disability status. The disaggregation of data enables education leaders and advocates in identifying the persistent and troubling gaps in areas such as academic proficiency, per pupil expenditures, and teacher quality.   However, ESSA falls short of disaggregating data within the Asian Pacific Islander student population, making it more challenging to identify opportunity gaps for underserved youth in those communities.

ESSA supports effective dropout prevention strategies such as afterschool programs and community schools, emphasizing the importance of community partners through 21st Century Community Learning Centers and the Community Support for School Success programs. ESSA also requires states to specify how they will effectively transition students from middle school to high school and from high school to postsecondary education. Both periods are critical to ensuring students graduate from high school on time and successfully transition into adulthood.

In addition, the legislation strengthens support for justice-involved youth by requiring state plans to ensure greater coordination between local education agencies and correctional facilities. For example, local districts must ensure that credits earned by students during their placement are counted towards their secondary degree once re-enrolled in school. 

ESSA takes steps to catalyze growing graduation rates across the country. Specifically, ESSA provides additional resources to support high schools that are failing to graduate more than one-third or more of their students. The law does not prescribe how these resources would be used but allows schools and local districts to craft and implement evidence-based intervention strategies that support underperforming and underserved students.

CLASP believes states, local districts, and schools should take advantage of the opportunity to focus on students who are over-aged and under-credited and those who have left school without a high school diploma by providing a menu of comprehensive  educational pathways that prepare students for graduation and postsecondary success including, among others:

  • Reengagement centers;
  • Applied learning approaches;
  • Twilight academies;  
  • Specialized supports for student parents; and,
  • Concurrent enrollment in high school and community college.

Since ESEA’s inception, the law has included early childhood as a potential use of funding targeted for low-income children, along with references to early childhood programs and transitions from early learning to early elementary school. ESSA includes additional language supporting early childhood education and early literacy throughout the bill, making explicit where funds can be used to support early education activities. The law requires states to provide technical assistance to schools and districts that choose to use Title I funds to support early childhood and maintains the requirement to apply Head Start program standards to preschool services funded through Title I. Also included in the law is an authorization for a new Preschool Development Grant (PDG) program.

ESEA, which became law in 1965, was historic in its attempt to leverage federal resources to eradicate educational inequity among the nation’s poor. In order to realize that vision and uphold the original intent of the law, states and local school districts must be responsible stewards of the flexibility afforded to them by ESSA and partner with students, parents, community-based organizations, and other institutions to advance educational equity and excellence among all students regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or background, including attention to our most marginalized youth and vulnerable young children.

In early 2016, CLASP will provide a more detailed analysis of how ESSA can be leveraged to address racial and economic disparities and advance dropout prevention and recovery strategies and prepare vulnerable students for postsecondary and careers.