Foster children have been notoriously underserved when it comes to schooling, but ESSA might change that.
Students in foster care get the short end of nearly every stick. And one of the most damaging shortfalls for their long-term welfare is the lack of access to consistent, quality schooling. A year ago, a national study of over a thousand foster kids revealed that kids in the system moved schools an average of once a year and lost 5-6 months of academic progress with every move. More if they were moving between schools with very different performance levels (bad to good, mediocre to awful, good to bad.)
They also found that every single change in living arrangements with their attendant change in schools reduced the child’s chance of graduating by fifty percent. More than 400,000 children are currently in foster care in the United States, and just barely over half are statistically going to graduate at all.
When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and later No Child Left Behind stressed the importance for schools to close the gap between their high and low performers, education agencies identified foster kids as officially high-risk for the first time. In 2014, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act was passed, which gave childcare welfare agencies important access to education records (these were previously only available to legal guardians). With agencies able to keep themselves up to date, they could ease some of the frustrations (enrollment delay, having to repeat courses, credits that didn’t transfer or went missing) that increased the odds a student would drop out.
This year, a clause in the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has gone a step further. The new act contains provisions to keep students in the same schools if at all possible, even if they move from one district to another. It requires schools and state agencies to provide transportation and to expedite enrollment and record transfer if a change of schools has to happen anyway. Perhaps more importantly, schools are required to report the progress of students in state care as they would any other minority group, so that for the first time, broad national data is available to be acted upon.
It’s hoped that the new ESSA policy will be especially helpful for American Indian students.
The Every Student Succeeds Act marks the first major federal overhaul for K-12 education in 15 years. Reversing much of the problematic No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, ESSA will give more administrative power back to the states while maintaining reading and math testing mandates. The general consensus seems to be that this will be an extremely positive change for schools—in particular those that are working to educate underserved populations such as American Indians.
Of particular interest is the section of the policy stating that it will “ensure that Indian children do not attend school in buildings that are dilapidated or deteriorating, which may negatively affect the academic success of such children.” It will also strive to promote culturally appropriate education for Native students (tribal language, history, and traditions) by supporting those efforts with well-trained teachers.
The new act is not without its own problems, though. On December 1, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights told Congress that, while they approve of ESSA as a better set of policies than NCLB, they are still concerned with certain elements of the act. It puts a lot of responsibility on the states and far less on the federal government, which could potentially cause problems in terms of supporting underserved communities that traditionally get more assistance federally as opposed to locally. Fewer checks and balances on power can have that effect.
Still, with the achievement gap for Native students—and many others—as prevalent as it is, changes were necessary.
Under the new policy, schools will still be required to give standardized reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8, but individual states will determine the standards and what tests to use. States will also be in charge of deciding what to do about schools that don’t live up to their standards, defined as schools in which two-thirds don’t graduate from high school, schools in the bottom 5%, and/or schools in which minority students in particular are struggling.
ESSA will also eliminate 50 education funding programs by combining them into one large block grant. That means no more School Improvement Grants or Race to the Top funding. But there will still be support for charter schools and early childhood education.