New Federal education law deserves a closer look from those interested in science education

By Gaythia Weis.

I want to call attention to the newly enacted legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which relinquishes Federal control over many aspects of the education of our nation’s children. In so doing, this law may enable religious activists to exert their influence to a greater extent than previously possible. I need not remind readers of The Panda’s Thumb of the manner in which creationists attempt to subvert the public education system to further their own ideological goals.

ESSA is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was first enacted in the Lyndon Johnson administration as a means of furthering equality of education in our nation. ESSA is ostensibly directed to address issues, including excessive student testing and ineffective teachers, that many think were problems with the previous No Child Left Behind program. However, the ESSA is the result of bipartisan political compromise and its provisions raise new issues.

Some of these issues ought to be of grave concern to those of us interested in science education. These issues call for our close attention and active monitoring.

I. New law undercuts university teacher-training programs

As described here, Title II of this legislation allows states to establish teacher academies as alternatives to university education departments. These academies will be exempt from states’ teacher certification requirements and will not be required to obtain accreditation. Additionally, states may not require those teaching at the academies to have experience, degrees, or training in education, to hold advanced degrees, or to conduct academic research. Thus, not only does this legislation diminish Federal guidelines; it reduces state control as well.

The Brookings Institution claims that this provision will unlock “business model innovation” in the teacher education process.

As Brookings notes, “The challenge for states will be to make sure that the policies and regulations they adopt for authorizing these new programs truly lead to the desired outcome of producing more high-quality teachers.” But will adopting a “business model” really increase the sorts of educational innovation for teacher training that leads away from a focus on such things as credit hours taken and towards actual outcomes measurable as teacher effectiveness? Without accreditation or state control of teacher certification, where is the accountability? And what if these academies, states, state boards of education, or local school boards have other motivations?

Specifically, academies can hire faculty that suit their religious, moral, or philosophical values. Further, it is not hard to see how undereducated teachers would be forced into rural and underprivileged schools or proprietary charter schools, reducing equity in educational opportunity. The supply of teachers produced by academies may well exert downward pressure on teachers’ salaries overall.

II: New law undercuts Common Core Curriculum

ESSA returns to the states many aspects of control over what is taught in schools. It moves away from Federal oversight by granting the states greater authority over accountability, school turnarounds, teacher evaluation, and more. It thus reduces Federal leverage for state implementation of Common Core Standards. Some states may rise to the challenge and move forward with innovative and scientifically sound programs. But clearly, giving greater curriculum powers to State Boards of Education and other local entities ought to raise concerns that some states will instead cave in to pressures from ideological or profit-minded special interest groups.

The bipartisan compromise continues to require states to adopt challenging academic standards for math, reading, and science. Education critic Diane Ravitch notes, however, that defining challenging is left to the states:

The Secretary [of Education] and peer reviewers are strictly prohibited from reviewing the content of state standards, as the State does not have to submit the standards for review or approval, prohibited in section 1111(b)(1)(A) under the new law. The Secretary cannot require a state to add to or delete from its standards, or interfere with state standards, as dictated by section 1111(e)(1)(B)(ii) in the new law. In section 8527(d), there is an explicit prohibition on any federal approval or certification of standards.

Some sources take an optimistic approach:

“For conservatives out there whose main beef with Common Core was the federal element, they can now rest assured that’s over and now we can go back to debating these sets of standards on their own merits,” [Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Washington-based, right-leaning Fordham Institute and a supporter of Common Core] said. “I’m hopeful this can actually help keep the Common Core or something very close to them in the vast majority of states.”

Relieved of the feeling that they must “teach to the test,” innovative teachers may devise wonderfully creative and engaging hands-on science activities such as are described here. But each state can define what it means to have “well rounded” and “environmentally literate” students.

Implementation of the ESSA legislation will be highly state-dependent and thus may increase the division between students emerging from states or localities with varying levels of support for science. Educational opportunity will then be determined by the whims of state legislatures, state Boards of Education, local boards of education, and the lobbying groups that influence them.


Gaythia Weis is an analytical chemist and a board member of the Colorado Citizens for Science.