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Critics Concerned Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act Won’t Fix the Problems in American Schools

President Obama smiles Thursday after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Obama smiles Thursday after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Thursday, his administration’s replacement for President George W. Bush’s unpopular No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

Critics of NCLB pointed to the fact that it concentrated heavily on testing to evaluate the efficiency of schools. Teachers complained they spent more time preparing students to pass tests, instead of actually learning. Interestingly enough, the former president’s brother, Neil Bush, owned Ignite! Learning, a company that supplied much of the educational materials schools were directed to use.

The Obama administration’s ESSA still retains testing, but it eliminates federal oversight. Under NCLB, schools that performed poorly on standardized tests stood to lose federal funding. ESSA returns the job of evaluating and deciding how to improve schools to the states.

Bloomberg expressed concerned that ESSA doesn’t do enough to replace poorly performing teachers. According to a Bloomberg editorial, research shows the best way to improve school performance is to make sure that effective teachers are in the classroom.

In an interview with NPR’s Here and Now, Eduardo Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation, said ESSA doesn’t address the inequality in the American education system.

“That’s because the gaps that we see in education are really a manifestation of broader patterns of inequality that children experience and that are present in our society: gaps in access to health care, gaps in access to good housing,” said Noguera. “And so those disparities aren’t erased by just focusing on what happens in schools, and unfortunately ESSA perpetuates the notion that we can address inequality and academic outcome simply by focusing on schools.”

Noguera said that if we want to improve disadvantaged students’ educational performance we really need to address poverty. Black students from low-income backgrounds face several other social problems that make it hard for them to function well in the classroom. Neither ESSA nor NCLB address the way wealthy suburban and inner city schools are funded.

“It’s interesting when you look at the history of the act that when the Johnson administration enacted [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, of which ESSA is the latest version], it was really about addressing the effects of poverty,” Noguera said. “It’s interesting because Lyndon B. Johnson was himself at one time a teacher in south Texas, and he saw the effects of poverty up close. And so the origins of the act were to try to compensate for poverty. And in fact, we made our greatest gains as a nation in closing gaps in academic achievement during the 1970s, when we were focused on school integration and addressing poverty on a broader scale in the country.”

Noguera told NPR the direction of American education depends on the next president and who he or she appoints as secretary of education. He added the focus should be on teaching and learning.

“We haven’t really focused on how to create high-quality learning opportunities for kids so that they’re more motivated, more engaged, more willing to read on their own time, more inclined to pursue science and math as careers, “ Noguera said. “That’s what we should be focused on, not on how to test kids into improvement.”

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