High-stakes testing. Diminished local control over schools. One-size-fits-all reforms.

In the last few years, No Child Left Behind has become synonymous with much of what teachers and parents say they dislike about public schools today.

With so much frustration leveled at the federal law, it’s little wonder that the U.S. Senate’s approval Wednesday of a new bill to replace NCLB is being greeted with cheers by politicians and teachers alike.

Yet, in Hawaii, little actually may change as a result of the new law, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act.

5th Grade Hale Kua Elementary School teachers Ronda Gillam and Esther Park talk with Governor David Ige in their new classroom. 27 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At Hale Kua Elementary School, fifth-grade teachers Ronda Gillam and Esther Park talk with Gov. David Ige and First Lady Dawn Ige in their new classroom.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii is one of more than three dozen states that received a waiver in recent years from most of NCLB’s requirements. Hawaii’s most recent waiver was approved because of the state’s progress implementing its own accountability system, known as Strive HI.

Without a state waiver, schools that failed to meet student-proficiency goals under NCLB would have been subject to sanctions.

Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said he is still reading through the 1,059-page Every Child Succeeds Act, but he doesn’t see it as having a huge or immediate impact on Hawaii.

“Culturally, we love test numbers as the easy way to judge whether we are doing well in education, so the tests are going to continue.” — Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center

“Culturally, we love test numbers as the easy way to judge whether we are doing well in education,”  Shon said. “So the tests are going to continue.” 

Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono both voted for ESSA, sending out press releases on Wednesday touting their support for the legislation.

According to the releases, the ESSA creates a new grant initiative for establishing or expanding Native language immersion programs, and allows charter schools to apply directly for more federal grants.

Many of the other elements of ESSA highlighted by the senators maintain existing programs such as Federal Impact Aid (which subsidizes schools with high numbers of military dependents) and Preschool Development Grants.

The Department of Education is monitoring the progress of ESSA and the impact it will have on Hawaii, Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz said in an email statement.

“It reaffirms the direction of HIDOE with regard to education flexibility and accountability,” Schatz said.

What Was NCLB?

Signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, NCLB was a sweeping overhaul of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The controversial NCLB reforms measured school performance through student test scores, and required schools to show annual progress with the percentage of students testing proficient in English-language arts and math tests.

Proficiency targets under NCLB were set to rise periodically, peaking in 2014 when 100 percent of students were expected to be proficient in the two subjects. By 2014, more than 40 states had received NCLB waivers.

Until the waivers were implemented, schools that missed improvement targets were placed in “Program Improvement” status, and faced a rising level of penalties — including letting families move to more successful schools, providing tutors, and eventually requiring districts to replace principals and teachers.

Although NCLB received bipartisan support when it first passed, it became increasingly unpopular.

“Let it die.” — Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association

As Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee put it: “Let it die.”

Many people refer to NCLB as if the law had a life of its own, National Public Radio’s Cory Turner pointed out earlier this week in an “obituary” for the law.

The NPR piece even included a “No Child Left Behind eulogy” from  Hawaii DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi.

“Worked very, very hard. Was often misunderstood,” she said in the NPR piece. “Wanted to do the right thing, but in the end, really didn’t get where he wanted to go.”

Teacher Evaluations

One change that may prove significant is that the new law will eliminate the federal mandate for Hawaii to have a teacher-evaluation system linked to student achievement.

Teacher evaluations weren’t actually a part of NCLB, but they played a key role in getting a waiver — something the state will no longer need.

The change could open the door for the teachers union to push harder against the state’s three-year-old Educator Effectiveness System, which started affecting teacher pay this year.

That system was developed as part of the state’s Race to the Top grant application, but it also played a part in its waiver applications.

The teacher evaluations are based on two categories: teacher practice, and student learning and growth. Within those categories, teachers are judged using classroom observations or portfolios, student surveys, test scores, and “Student Learning Objectives.”

Nearly all states have started tying student achievement to teacher evaluations — in part because of efforts to get NCLB waivers. Most states, however, are still pretty early in the process of implementing these new evaluations.

Hawaii is one of very few states to have reached the point where “the rubber is starting to meet the road for positive or negative consequences,” Sandi Jacobs, policy director at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said earlier this year.

The response from teachers in Hawaii to the evaluation system has been pretty negative — so much so that the leaders of the teachers union campaigned on a goal of getting rid of the system entirely.

Although some evaluation requirements have been scaled back, eliminating it entirely may prove difficult. The state Department of Education spent years developing the system and millions of dollars implementing it.

“Yes, the feds made us do it,” Shon said.  “But (the department) invested a lot of time and intellectual capital framing it as a good idea.”

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