Rhode Island is working to implement The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law last December and replaces the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. Last month, the Rhode Island Committee of Practitioners gathered for their first meeting — and their second is just around the corner, on August 24th. They are helping the Rhode Island Department of Education create an ESSA transition plan. Brown University Senior Lecturer of Education Luther Spoehr sat down with WBRU News reporter Molly Schulson to chat about this new act, and its historical context.

Molly Schulson: Back in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. This act set a goal for all students to be ‘proficient’ in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Were these expectations realistic?

Courtesy: Brown University
Courtesy: Brown University

Luther Spoehr: Whether it was realistic, I’m kind of cautious, so I didn’t think it was realistic at the time. It did do some useful things. It helped us really identify where under-resourced and inadequate education was happening, and that’s a good thing. But the remedy was not adequate.

MS: What changed during the Obama administration?

LS: When Obama became president, you have, in addition to the NCLB was Race to the Top, which Rhode Island, under the leadership of Deborah Gist, was very enthusiastic about and got lots of money and the results were pretty marginal.

If you signed on and agreed to a set of stipulations about how to assess teachers, you’d get money. So there was a carrot with not just a stick attached to it. Rhode Island successfully applied and got the money.

MS: When did people decide it was time to move on from No Child Left Behind?

LS: Well, 2014 was the target date for NCLB, when everything was going to be fixed, and it became clear that that wasn’t going to be happening. There were some people who resisted NCLB all along, and there were others who became discouraged about the relative lack of progress. There was a sense that perhaps the problem was the curriculum, so that’s why seven or eight years into NCLB you then have people talking about the Common Core, which is really focused on curriculum.

MS: What did the Common Core do?

LS: Now legally, the federal government cannot prescribe curriculum. That was built into the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act back i n 1965. So they had to find another way to get at curriculum. So they used state education leaders and governors, and the federal government sort of urged them along… and that’s how the Common Core emerged in 2010 and we’ve been implementing it, or trying to implement it ever since.

MS: What was the result?

LS: The results that have come in have not been encouraging. And they keep running into unexpected things. For example, this program is supposedly going to involve testing on computers. Well not all schools have computers, so that’s a problem. But they’re also finding out students’ results vary depending on whether they’re taking it on a PC, or a tablet or an iPad. Who expects that? What does that mean? Is it significant?

MS: What do you have to say about the increase in standardized assessments?

LS: I think ESSA is a real pushback against that. There is presumably going to be less testing. Even President Obama said that. There’s a real desire by implementing the Common Core to stop shrinking the curriculum so it doesn’t focus on just language arts and math, but brings back things like history, literature, art and music. We’ll see. But that’s the goal and one of the ways of achieving that goal is to have less testing. … You’re seeing a pendulum swing back and forth, right? We don’t test enough, we test a whole lot, maybe somewhere in the middle is where Goldilocks wants to be tested.

MS: What’s the difference between ESSA and NCLB?

LS: I don’t really know at this point — in terms of results — that we can say.

MS: What about a difference ideology-wise?

LS: This is policy wonkery. This is political leaders, educational spokesman, union leaders, superintendents, district chiefs, all saying we’re going to respond to the pressures from various sides to first of all reduce testing and secondly, expand the content of the curriculum. As a historian who’s really interested in how things play out in the classroom, I can safely say that we don’t know yet whether this is going to not only work but is it going to be implemented? You close the classroom door, and what goes on in the classroom is not always what the policymakers have in mind. That’s life. So I’m very agnostic on the whole question of whether it’s going to work but even the question of exactly what it is. We’ll see.

MS: Should we compare our system to other countries’ education systems?

LS: The golden child of the moment is Finland because their test scores are high. But is Finland really comparable to the US? It’s smaller, more homogenous, they pay their teachers a lot more so they’re much more selective in who they allow into the teaching profession. There’s all these differences. To simply go looking for answers in a different culture with different values …

We’re determined to educate everybody and that’s really important and really admirable, but if we’re not going to leave children behind, then what do we do with the ones who might otherwise be moving on ahead? There’s an argument right now that says we’re not doing very well by gifted students because if there’s a threshold of performance and you’re a teacher that says, ‘okay, all of my students I want over the threshold’ — if there are students easily over the threshold, you don’t worry about them as much as you do students who are just a little below it. They’re the ones who get the extra attention.

MS: Anything else you’d like to add?

LS: We talk about the American school system—there is no American school system. There are 15,000 school districts, there are millions of teachers, there are hundreds of thousands of schools, ranging from tiny, rural ones to giant, urban ones. We have this huge range of socioeconomic status. We have multiple languages, English language learners, and admirably we’re determined to expand Special Ed so all the children can have a decent education. That’s hard. … And to simply say schools can do it all is a misplaced faith.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.