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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

How Wisconsin Educators Are Preparing For A New Nationwide Schools Law

Rachel Morello
Wisconsin school officials gather in Pewaukee to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Here’s an acronym for you: ESSA.

It stands for the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” If you’re armed with just that information, you might be able to guess that ESSA is a law, and it has something to do with schools. You’d be right. And, you’d know about as much about it as some of the people it will affect: educators.

ESSA is a pretty big deal. But you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know – it’s been awhile since the US has passed anything like it.

This whole thing started in 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson was president. As he signed the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” he told spectators that “no law [he had] signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”

It detailed how public schools should operate – from how they’d be funded, to what teaching materials they’d use. The law was part of his signature War on Poverty. Johnson wanted to expand the federal government’s role in education.

So that the law keeps up with the times, federal leaders are supposed to re-evaluate it every five years. The most recent revision came during George W. Bush’s presidency: “No Child Left Behind.” No Child gave more power than ever before to the feds to dictate school policy. This top-down approach made it extremely divisive, along with its intense requirements for things such as annual testing and teacher qualifications.

Following the uproar, congress blew its five-year deadline twice before coming up with a rewrite. That’s where ESSA comes in.

ESSA sets a framework for the level of achievement public school students should reach in a given year.

But where No Child Left Behind was prescriptive, ESSA leaves much open for interpretation. For example, it holds schools and teachers accountable for student progress but doesn’t spell out how to measure it.  Is it report cards? What determines whether a teacher has been effective?

Each state is responsible for crafting its own plan, and Wisconsin is taking that responsibility seriously.

This summer, the state’s Department of Public Instruction is hosting “listening sessions” across the state.

“This is an opportunity for the general public, for parents, for families, for community members, to engage in a conversation about what education should look like in Wisconsin,” says Jonas Zuckerman, DPI’s director of school support staff.

During the sessions, the agency presents an overview of ESSA. Afterwards, small groups focus on questions such as, “how effective are school report cards?” and “how can families become engaged?”

DPI’s Laura Pinsonneault says input from Wisconsin folks ‘in the trenches’ is critical.

“Let’s identify the things that aren’t working, and figure out what we can do about them. I think that’s a part of the discussion,” Pinsonneault says. “I’m certain that people had things to say that they didn’t like, and that’s okay because that voicing helps push us to make it better.”

Wisconsin DPI officials Jonas Zuckerman and Laura Pinsonneault detail the state's plans to prepare for ESSA.

Berlin fourth grade teacher Gale Gerharz attended a session in Pewaukee.

“I think there’s still a lot I need to know,” Gerharz remarks.

She says although the new law won’t take effect until 2017, she wants to get a good grasp on it now and hopes fellow teachers do the same.

“When I was starting off in the classroom, it was like ‘who makes these decisions?!” she chuckles. “This kind of gives a voice to teachers. Especially after Act 10, I think that some of that voice was taken away. So, if we’re going to impact policy, we all need to step up and talk.”

The DPI will host one more session in Eau Claire on July 27, as well as two virtual sessions in August. The public can also submit comments about what they’d like to see in Wisconsin schools on the DPI website.

State officials start forming Wisconsin’s ESSA plan in August. It’s due to the feds next July.

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