Six theories on why no one seems to give a crap about the new school accountability law

The Every Student Succeeds Act—the federal education law that required all states to define what success looks like for 100,000 public schools and 50 million public school students nationwide–will go into full effect this year.

But you’d never know that from asking everyday parents and educators about the accountability law.

No one is talking about it. No one is paying attention to what states are planning. Many have no idea what this law is or what it does—and doesn’t do.

We tried a little experiment, me and my fellow bloggers, to celebrate the fact that all states completed and submitted their accountability plans under ESSA. We asked a random selection of friends, parents and teachers what they know about ESSA, and we got a collective blank stare. “What’s that?” “What do you mean?” “No clue.” And when I say no one, what I actually mean is no one outside of this little bubble of people who pay close attention to education policy because it’s their job or just a very peculiar obsession.

So if you’re one of those bubble people, it’s easy to get all aflutter about this epidemic of apathy. But it’s also really easy to understand.

Let me offer a few theories about why no one knows/no one cares/no one is paying attention to what accountability will look like in our schools.

Theory 1: This isn’t really real  yet to the overwhelming majority of parents and teachers. We are focused on whatever is happening in our own school, and whether it will change things for our kids or our classrooms. In my community, the big issue everyone seems to be talking about is whether the district will change the “gifted and talented” programs to make it more inclusive. Of course, you could argue that is very much about school quality (and testing), but few are inclined to connect the dots.

Theory 2: The states have done a lousy job of explaining its new accountability plan to school districts, and so by extension, districts are not sharing any meaningful information with their parents and educators. School districts have been conditioned to resist or resent the bureaucratic demands of states, and states have been quick to shift the blame to the feds. Scapegoating the feds is not an option here, so the less said the better. 

Theory 3: Despite a promise that ESSA will “unleash a flood of innovation and student achievement across America,  it hasn’t and it almost certainly won’t. This law was supposed to be all about local control, about empowering states to think boldly about how to define school quality and student success far beyond test scores. But most states are taking the safest path–defining success by the predictable measures already in place, like absenteeism or the percentage of high school students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Theory 4: Very few schools will actually be held accountable under this new law, except the lowest-performing schools in the bottom 5% of performance or those high schools that graduate fewer than two-third of their students. So if you’re not among the worst of the worst schools or districts, then it’s easy to be complacent. I know No Child Left Behind became everyone’s favorite whipping boy on the education policy front, but at least it put a lot of average schools—and even above-average ones–on the hot seat because they could no longer hide the fact that they weren’t adequately educating low-income students, students of color, or those with disabilities. Technically, schools will still have to be transparent about how those students are achieving, but nothing will happen even if those academic gaps are egregious.

Theory 5: Many teachers and parents have a visceral reaction to the words “accountability” and “standardized testing,” so even if they do see something about the Every Student Succeeds Act plans, they will swipe left and disengage.

Theory 6:  We are all so worried about absolute chaos in Washington D.C. and the potential of nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea that we don’t have the energy or luxury to focus on the details of an arcane law that will do little to change the way things are run in our nation’s schools.

Those are my theories. Because I’m one of those weirdos who pay attention to education policy, I truly wish that more parents were paying attention. I know if they were, they might actually be able to mobilize and influence the way these rules take shape in our schools  and communities. It might help us feel a little less powerless about all the other madness in our world.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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