The Every Student Succeeds Act in historical context

Elementary girl in red sweater sitting at a table in a library looking at a laptop

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was reauthorized in December, 2015, marked its 50th anniversary, and the new version portends important future shifts in accountability and assessment. The new version is called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESEA was created during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in 1965. President Johnson, who graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College, was a teacher in the 1930s. According to Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, the original ESEA legislation was a civil rights law created as a response to poverty and inequity in education across the country – poverty that President Johnson saw first hand while teaching in Texas. ESEA offered federal grants to districts serving low-income students and grants for books, education centers and scholarships for low-income college students. President Johnson believed that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.”

1965 bill signing by president lyndon johnson

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson jokes with his first grade school teacher Mrs. Chester Loney, after signing the Elementary and Secondary Education bill at the side of his old school near Stonewall, Texas, on April 11, 1965. Seated at right are, first lady Ladybird Johnson and daughter Lynda Bird. –AP-File

Although the overall mission of ESEA has remained the same over the years, it has evolved over time to include the needs of more specialized at-risk groups, including English-language learners (the Bilingual Act; Title VII), female students (the Women’s Educational Equity Act; Title IX), and Native American students (the Improvement of Educational Opportunities for Indian Students Act; Title X).

A lot has been written about the new law, but it might be helpful to think about it in context. To that end, here’s a short timeline of some of the major milestones and changes related to ESEA. In no way is this intended to cover all of the details of its history.

1965: ESEA was enacted by Congress and signed into law.

1968: Congress expanded ESEA to include new programs (and titles) that serve at-risk children (migrants and neglected children). The Bilingual Education Act was also passed.

1969-1970: Analyses showed misuse of Title 1 aid (including the influential Martin-McClure report) causing Congress to amend and tighten the language in ESEA several times (between 1965-1980). The goal of the amendments was to increase restrictions such that more Title 1 money would be used to assist educationally disadvantaged students from low-income families.

1981: During the early 1980’s federal support of education programs was sharply reduced. Significantly fewer educationally disadvantaged children were served under ESEA in the 1980’s than in the 1970’s.

1988: Accountability and student testing become a major part of the law in 1988. The new version required districts to use assessments to measure and report their effectiveness annually. Schools that failed to make adequate progress were obligated to develop plans for improvement.

1994: The renewal of the ESEA called for states to develop standards and standards-aligned assessments for all students. States and districts were obligated to identify schools that were not making “adequate yearly progress” as detailed in the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) and single them out for improvement.

2002: ESEA became NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act). NCLB shifted much of the decision-making and resource allocation away from states and thus increased the national government’s role in education. NCLB also significantly expanded testing requirements. States were required to assess students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Adequate yearly progress was required/expected for all students, including students of limited English proficiency, racial/ethnic minority students, and students with disabilities. NCLB required that all students become proficient in math and reading/language arts by 2014.

2009: By 2009 ESEA was already two years past due for reauthorization. Though ESEA was stalled in Congress, new programs were created and money was allocated towards education in 2009 as part of the national economic stimulus plan (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Approximately $100 billion was allocated towards education aid via the ARRA. New competitive grant programs were established for the design of assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards and for innovative efforts to improve state data systems, standards and teacher evaluation systems.

2011: The reauthorization of ESEA (otherwise known as NCLB) was still held up in Congressional discussion. In 2011 a system was put in place that allowed states to apply for waivers that relinquished some of the NCLB requirements including the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in math and reading/language arts. The waivers also allowed states to set their own student-achievement goals and design their own interventions for failing schools. However, to be eligible for a waiver, states must have adopted college-and-career ready standards and tied those to their annual state assessments. Waivers did not remove the requirement to test students annually in reading and in math in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Priorities extolled by President Obama Administration2015: In December 2015, bipartisan support for the ESSA was high and the overdue reauthorization was finally signed into law. The actual ESSA document is 391 pages long. I have not read it all. My intention is not to provide full details, but rather to highlight some aspects that I find important and interesting. (If you would like to download the report I’ve included a link in the “Other Resources” section at the bottom of this blog where you can do so. If you find important and interesting details, please share them with us in the Comments section.)

One of the more global aspects of ESSA is that it shifts much of the decision-making power back to the states and local school districts. For example, states have more flexibility to define their own standards, assessments and accountability systems rather than having a federally mandated programs. However, ESSA does not remove the requirement for annual assessments in reading and in math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Also, school districts must continue to publish report cards showing student achievement on state tests so that their scores can be compared with those of other schools/students in their state.

ESSA provides states with more flexibility to create and implement their own teacher evaluation systems – teacher evaluations are no longer required to be tied directly (or solely) to student assessments. They also have more flexibility in the ways they can assess school performance. For example, districts may include factors such as school climate, student and teacher engagement, and access to advanced coursework in their school performance assessment.

President Barrak Obama signing ESSA

President Barack Obama signing ESSA

ESSA removes the federal government’s power to impose penalties on underperforming schools. Instead, states must decide how to improve those schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, those schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students, and schools with the greatest achievement gaps between differing populations of students.

Additionally, ESSA includes some changes to the way schools assess English-language learners.

“No Child Left Behind took a major step forward for English-language learners by disaggregating achievement data and holding schools accountable for improving English-language learners’ reading and math achievement and graduation rates under Title I, the largest federal K-12 education program. But the law treated English language acquisition for English-language learners differently, creating a completely separate accountability system that only applied to districts and states” Layton, 2015.

In contrast, ESSA requires that all schools provide evidence that their ELL students are increasing their English proficiency. This factor is a required indicator on every state’s school accountability system. To support this requirement, ESSA authorizes additional funds (between $737-$885 million) via Title III.

ESSA also includes the National Professional Development Project to increase teachers’ training for working with ELL students:

  • The Secretary must use funds to award 5-year competitive grants to institutions of higher education or public or private entities with relevant experience and capacity (in consortia with State educational agencies or local educational agencies) to provide for professional development activities that will improve classroom instruction for English learners and assist educational personnel working with English learners to meet high professional standards, including standards for certification and licensure as teachers who work in language instruction educational programs or serve English learners.

With respect to the topic of digital access, ESSA requires the Director of the U.S. Department of Educations’ Institute of Education Sciences to complete a study on the educational impact of access to digital learning resources outside of the classroom within 18 months. This study is meant to identify barriers and challenges students face in accessing digital educational content from home. Its goal is also to describe ways that State educational agencies, local educational agencies, schools, and other entities have developed effective means to address the barriers and challenges students face in accessing digital learning resources outside of the classroom.

Finally, ESSA addresses 21st Century Skill building via the authorization of $1.65 billion in Title IV funds for 2017. Title IV includes funding support and provisions pertaining to School Climate and Discipline, Educational Technology, Family Engagement, Charter Schools, Accelerated and Blending Learning.

“It will be some time before the country knows whether the new law improves public education, said Dr. Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education at Columbia University. “There will be changes in some places very early as some states test the limits as to what they can do differently,” he said. “But I think it’ll take us three, four, five years before we really have a sense of how this is rippling out throughout the system” Layton, 2015.

If you would like to get involved, hosts ESSA public input meetings.

Get involved:

The next ESSA public input meeting, in Los Angeles, CA, will be live-streamed January 19 at 9AM PT, noon ET. Join by going to:


About the Author
Liane Wardlow

Liane Wardlow, Ph.D.

Liane Wardlow, a former Pearson research scientist, focused on designing and implementing research studies examining e-learning in on-ground and on-line K-20 classrooms. She also worked collaboratively across research centers on a multi-state research project measuring the use and effects of digital technology on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes. Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Wardlow worked as a research scientist at the University of CA, San Diego in the Department of Psychology, and for the US Department of Education in the Institute for Education Sciences. Dr. Wardlow holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Follow her on Twitter: @LianeWardlow


Works Cited

Camera, L. (2015). States Eager to Shirk Obama-Era Education Policies.

Klein, A. (2016). Under ESSA, states, districts to share more power.

Layton, L. (2015). Senate overwhelmingly passes new national education legislation.

Sargrad, S. (2016). Hope for English-language learners: The Every Student Succeeds Act finally prioritizes the progress of English-language learning students.

Thomas, J. & Brady, K. (2005). Chapter 3 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act at 40: Equity, Accountability, and the Evolving Federal Role in Public Education, Review of Research in Education, 29, 51.

Westervelt, E. (2015). How Poor And Disadvantaged Students Will Fare Under The New Education Law.

Woodruff, J. (2015). New education law shifts federal influence over public schools.


Other resources

Every Student Succeeds Act: