The essence of ESSA: More control at the district level? 


The relationship between state education departments and local districts is evolving under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  


Both rhetorically and substantively, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) served as a rebuke to the now-unpopular policies pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations (American National Election Survey, 2018; Edgerton, 2019). Not only did it reduce the discretion of the secretary of education but also it allowed states greater flexibility in meeting the demands of standards-based accountability. In turn, this flexibility has emboldened states, which have more or less ignored the Department of Education’s feedback on the accountability plans the law requires them to submit for federal approval (Duff & Wohlstetter, 2019; and see McGuinn, this issue). 

Since 2015, a team of faculty and graduate student researchers at the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) has collected a broad range of data on ESSA’s implementation across the country, as well as data specific to California, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. These data come from 1) a 50-state database of policies attached to academic standards ( ), 2) surveys of teachers, principals, and superintendents in our six partner states, 3) interviews with state education agencies and district central offices in the six partner states, and 4) targeted site visits with classroom observations and teacher focus groups in the six states. Because we began collecting data immediately after ESSA’s passage, we have been able to observe closely as its implementation has evolved over the law’s first few years.  

Our six partner states differ from one another in many ways, and these differences extend to the education policy structures that affect their implementation of K-12 standards (Dahill-Brown, 2019; Spillane, 2009). Despite these differences, however, many of our findings are remarkably consistent across states. Most important, in every state where we have conducted interviews, we find that the underlying logic of education policy over the last two decades — the goal of developing, implementing, and using tests to hold students accountable to K-12 standards — continues to hold sway in state education associations (SEAs) and school districts. At the same time, however, we find that calls for “local control” have translated mostly to a weakening of test-based accountability and a devolution of decision-making power down to the school district level, which, in turn, has led to a new series of unintended consequences for policy makers to consider (Desimone et al., 2019). 

Policy trends across 50 states 

Analysis of our 50-state database reveals that across the country, three major policy trends have emerged since 2016, although the degree to which these trends are attributable to ESSA is unclear. 

  1. Revised teacher accountability policies add more local discretion.These changes represent a retreat from Race to the Top, which incentivized states to implement policies to both hold teachers accountable for slow growth in student proficiency and reward them for impressive gains on state tests. Such policies quickly spread across states in the earlier half of this decade (Bleiberg &Harbatkin, 2018), but in response to public backlash, 24 states and the District of Columbia have changed some aspect of their teacher evaluation laws since 2016. Fifteen states still award merit pay based on test scores, but in most cases, districts now have greater discretion in this area. Virginia and Texas, for example, maintain grant systems to support those who want to implement merit pay, but it is not mandatory for them to do so. Still, though, despite this loosening of accountability pressures at the SEA level, and whether or not they face more pressure to meet math and English language arts (ELA) content standards, many teachers continue to report that they are being rewarded or punished on the basis of student test scores, and they feel significantly more accountability pressures than do principals and superintendents (Edgerton & Desimone, 2019). 
  2. Increased use of student growth and chronic absenteeism as indicators in state accountability systems.Under NCLB, states were required to move toward having 100% of students meet minimum proficiency requirements in math and ELA. Critics have long noted, however, that focusing on proficiency alone often obscures the improvement that occurs below that level — if students move from, say, Level 1 to Level 9 on a 10-point scale, that should be recognized as an impressive accomplishment; but if the only goal that matters is to reach Level 10, then that improvement goes unrecognized. 

In response to such criticism, 35 states now include student growth, not just proficiency, in their accountability systems; and in six states, growth now counts for 48% or more of a district’s overall score. Other states, such as California, do not specify how to weight growth, achievement, and other measures, leaving districts to set their own performance goals.  

One measure that is becoming increasingly popular is chronic absenteeism, which now appears in the approved ESSA accountability plans for 29 states and Washington, D.C. Several of the SEA officials we interviewed cited research showing how chronically absent students negatively affect their classmates’ learning (see for instance, Gottfried, 2019). One SEA official, however, was apprehensive about holding practitioners accountable for a measure over which they had “little control.”  

Do these changes mean that states are fully rejecting No Child Left Behind (NCLB)–style accountability? In states such as California, with its Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), yes, they are. California districts now set their own achievement goals, but officials there did not believe that these changes were a direct result of ESSA. Participants in our study were enthusiastic about these changes, even though the new system was more complex. Said one district administrator, “The accountability measures are really a lot more complicated under ESSA, but I think they’re better.” 

  1. A renewed focus on English learners and students with disabilities.Because many states had not previously included English proficiency in their accountability formulas, major concerns arose around ESSA’s new requirements for English learners (ELs). Shifting accountability for ELs from Title III to Title I means that states now have to include ELs who are not yet ready for the ELA test in their overall ESSA plans. Previously, accountability systems could ignore those students who had not yet entered mainstream ELA classes. One SEA, for example, had to create a standardized process for identifying English learners that did not exist before 2016. We found that these problems are more acute in states that historically have served few ELs.

States also are grappling with new requirements for students with disabilities (SWDs), because, under ESSA, fewer students are now eligible to take alternative standardized assessments and receive alternative high school diplomas. Only 1% of students in a state may now take the alternative assessment, which is a sharp reduction for states accustomed to placing 5% or more of SWDs in this category. So even as states pull back from NCLB-style accountability, ESSA is asking states to pay more attention to ELs and SWDs. Most important, in every state, SEAs and districts seemed more willing to adopt a compliance stance toward the implementation of EL and SWD policies. In particular, teachers of SWD need guidance on how to differentiate instruction without lowering expectations. We found that fewer than half of teachers of SWD believe that their students will reach grade-level standards by the end of the year. (Edgerton, Fuchs, & Fuchs, in press). 

In short, the new consensus under ESSA privileges growth over proficiency, it incorporates multiple measures of student progress, and it forces districts to pay more attention to ELs and SWDs. Consequently, rarely does a single measure hold the type of dominance that student proficiency had in the pre-ESSA era. 

A changing relationship between districts and SEAs 

In addition to changing how educators are held accountable and what they are held accountable for, SEAs are beginning to use data collected through standardized tests and other measures in more targeted ways. For example, one SEA asked districts to develop an improvement plan that included “a root cause analysis” that would require the district to determine the reasons behind areas of concern that appear in the data and offer professional development opportunities that address those root causes, rather than just the surface-level effects. This SEA aimed to build “more capacity at a local, district, neighborhood, school level” instead of relying on punitive measures to drive improvement. Another SEA rejected an earlier “one-size-fits-all” approach to supporting school districts. Across states, officials described soliciting more feedback, both formally and informally, both to fulfill ESSA requirements and to move the focus of relationships with districts away from compliance.  

However, although SEAs want to be more supportive, we’ve found that their ability to provide professional development, curricula, and other assistance differs depending on financial resources and local politics. In one state, an official described being sensitive to a “long history” of the SEA being a “compliance machine.” Similarly, a district official said, “I can’t imagine working at the state department, especially, under our current political climate.” Adding to the complexity is the fact that, since ESSA’s passage, education policy has become increasingly polarized along partisan lines (Cheng et al., 2018; Houston, 2019). Politicians have distanced themselves from the former consensus on test-based accountability and now spar over issues of school choice, to give one prominent example. Ongoing battles over charter schools and vouchers have left some administrators without a clear middle ground where people with differing views can work together (Ben-Porath & Johanek, 2019). 

We’ve seen evidence of SEAs focusing much less on compliance and more on district-level capacity building than we did when our study began in 2016.

While SEAs in politically conservative states are wary of appearing to favor government overreach, small rural districts in these states are nonetheless eager for help with curricula and professional development. Indeed, if SEAs were to provide more of this kind of assistance, this might help build more buy-in among teachers for state policies, which in turn could lead to improved alignment with state standards (Edgerton & Desimone, 2018).  

On average, then, we’ve seen evidence of SEAs focusing much less on compliance and more on district-level capacity building than we did when our study began in 2016 (and these efforts have become politically less fraught as controversies over the Common Core State Standards and NCLB have faded). One SEA in particular has had great success in fostering a supportive relationship with a small underperforming rural district in turnaround status. The district received additional resources — professional development, curriculum pilot grants, and travel opportunities — without further sanctions. Thanks to this approach, we found district leaders expressing positive attitudes toward the SEA. One central office administrator said, “The state was so helpful. [Before,] anytime I thought about the state, I was like ugh. State people. It was that feeling. But these people were so welcoming . . . there’s no hierarchy.” This nonpunitive approach provides a path forward for SEAs hoping to use accountability metrics to adopt a more supportive stance toward school districts.  

Local control, or benign neglect? 

In sum, our data suggest that we have entered a new era of intergovernmental relations, in which school system-level actors appear to be resurgent (Marsh & Wohlstetter, 2013). In the current policy environment, state officials tend to have relatively few mechanisms with which to oversee districts, which leaves districts with a lot of options to decide their own curricula and adopt their own local policies and school improvement strategies. SEAs, wary of political pushback, seem hesitant to return to the days of NCLB. This increased power at the district level, and not “states’ rights,” is the most significant kind of “local control” that ESSA has brought about (Desimone et al., 2019). (Admittedly, the 13 districts that participated in this study volunteered to do so and may not be representative of the country as a whole. Still, while they represent a range of rural, urban, and suburban contexts, these districts report that, for the most part, ESSA has given them considerable flexibility to lead themselves.) 

The picture isn’t entirely benign: In this environment, school districts may find themselves struggling to cope with urgent problems without a toolkit — in our study, this was particularly true for districts facing financial pressures. One extreme (punitive test-based accountability) can easily be replaced by another (laissez-faire state leadership). Consequently, we cannot exclude the possibility that less federal- and state-driven accountability will result in less attention paid to the neediest districts. 

Across our interviews, we did hear an acknowledgment that, in the words of one SEA official, ESSA “requires the state to be a much more active partner. Not to take over school districts or take over schools, but to be there to offer technical assistance, professional development resources.” But looking at our 50-state database, not every SEA seems to have received this message. None of the states where we conducted interviews was among the worst-achieving in the country. ESSA plans in these lower-achieving states reveal more adherence to proficiency-based accountability.  

With or without accountability, SEAs have a duty to provide adequate, aligned resources to districts around central issues of teaching and learning, especially curricula. As one official put it, implementing K-12 standards under ESSA requires “intensive training as well as fidelity and consistency and everything else that goes into it. How do you get that? How do you get that reliability across the state? That’s something that we’re still wrestling with.” Practitioners need more than dollars alone — they need to know what to purchase, how to implement it, and ongoing support in doing so. Even when federal and state policies shift, this central challenge remains. 


American National Election Studies. (2018). ANES Time Series Cumulative Data File [Dataset]. Stanford University and the University of Michigan. 

Ben-Porath, S. & Johanek, M.C. (2019). Making up our mind: What school choice is really about. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Bleiberg, J. & Harbatkin, E. (2018). Teacher evaluation reform: A convergence of federal and local forces. Educational Policy, 1-35. 

Cheng, A., Henderson, M.B., Peterson, P.E., & West, M.R. (2018). Public support climbs for teacher pay, school expenditures, charter schools, and universal vouchers. Education Next, 19 (1), 1-26.  

Dahill-Brown, S.E. (2019). Education, equity, and the states: How variations in state governance make or break reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. 

Desimone, L.M., Stornaiuolo, A., Flores, N., Pak, K., Edgerton, A., Nichols, T.P., . . . Porter, A. (2019). Successes and challenges of the “new” College-and Career-Ready Standards: Seven implementation trends. Educational Researcher, 48 (3), 167-178. 

Duff, M. & Wohlstetter, P. (2019). Negotiating intergovernmental relations under ESSA. Educational Researcher. 

Edgerton, A.K. (2019, March). The faces of public schools: Relationships among ethnocentrism, unions, and school spending support. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, Kansas City, MO. 

Edgerton, A.K. & Desimone, L.M. (2018). Teacher implementation of college- and career-readiness standards: Links among policy, instruction, challenges and resources. AERA Open, 4 (5), 1-22. 

Edgerton, A.K. & Desimone, L.M. (2019). Mind the gaps: Differences in how teachers, principals, and districts experience college- and career-readiness policies. American Journal of Education. 

Edgerton, A.K., Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. (in press). New standards and old divides: Policy attitudes about college- and career-readiness standards for students with disabilities. Teachers College Record. 

Gottfried, M.A. (2019). Chronic absenteeism in the classroom context: Effects on achievement. Urban Education, 54 (1), 3-34. 

Houston, D.M. (2019). Polarization and the politics of education: What moves partisan opinion? Educational Policy, 1-24. 

Marsh, J.A. & Wohlstetter, P. (2013). Recent trends in intergovernmental relations: The resurgence of local actors in education policy. Educational Researcher, 42 (5), 276-283. 

Spillane, J.P. (2009). Standards deviation: How schools misunderstand education policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 


Note: This research was supported in part by Grant R305C150007 from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education to the University of Pennsylvania. The author’s opinions do not reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Education. 


Citation: Edgerton, A.K. (2019, Sept. 23). The essence of ESSA: More control at the district level? Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (2), 14-17.

ADAM KIRK EDGERTON (; @AdamKirkEdge) is a Ph.D. candidate in education policy at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

One Comment

  • The problem is incompetent districts; and the solution is consolidation, which should be voluntary in most cases, and forced in the case of district bankruptcies (I have Los Angeles Unified in mind). Once ESSA’s test-based accountability strategy and the Common Core have been obviated (and the controversy over them has not faded, at least with some of us — and it will pick up again, I predict, in December, when new PISA data shows that America’s educational decline has continued), there will be newly perceived need for local education agency solutions to problems the federal government has created, and private education agencies can prepare for this coming demand by developing improved assessment of genuinely world-class standards achievement.

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