Background and ESSA Context

ESEAThe Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA—now also coined as the “Every Student Succeeds Act”—ESSA) was passed by Congress and signed by the President on December 10, 2015. It will be phased in over the next two years, and will not be fully in place until the 2017-18 school year when we will have a new president and secretary of education. As part of this transition, the U.S. Department of Education’s program of approving individual state waivers null and void on August 1, 2016, making the 2016-17 school year a time of big transition. . . and planning.

While protecting ESEA’s original intent of moderating the effects of poverty and targeting resources to students in need, the most significant change in the new ESEA/ESSA legislation is that it returns much of the planning, approval, and execution of important facets of the law to the states. Indeed, the law allows states to set their own accountability systems, and they do not have to follow the previously rigid “adequate yearly progress” construct.   In addition, while states will still need to disaggregate test results by subgroups, ESSA resets the expectations for accountability and testing by pushing for accountability systems that are less test-based and tests that are improved relative to producing valid and meaningful outcomes.

But, beyond its focus on academic proficiency, the new law also requires states to address issues and outcomes that relate to school climate and student interactions. More specifically, ESEA/ESSA includes the following:

  • It adds a non-test measure to their accountability systems—for example, include student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness, school climate/safety, or anything else the state deems relevant.
  • Authorizes a $1.6 Billion formula grant for states and districts to improve: (a) well-rounded education opportunities; (b) conditions for learning to create healthy and safe school environments, and (c) effective use of technology.
  • Asserts that states must spend at least 20% of funds above to create healthy and safe learning environments, which can include mental and behavioral health services.
  • Requires states to describe how they will support district efforts to improve school climate, address bullying and harassment, and reduce the use of aversive behavior interventions.
  • Allows States/LEAs to use Title I funds to implement multi-tiered systems of support, positive behavior interventions and supports, and early intervening services.
  • Allows schools to use Title I funds to implement school based mental health programs as part of a schoolwide program to address the needs of students most at risk for school failure.

Thus, every state will develop its own strategies and approaches to abide by these important facets of ESSA. Indeed, they—along with their districts and schools—will need expert advice and evidence-based guidance to plan and implement effective school climate and safety strategies, and the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills needed by students to be successful.

Dr. Howie Knoff is a nationally-known innovator and hands-on practitioner in the areas of School Improvement and Turn-Around, Strategic Planning and Organizational Development; School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management (PBIS/PBSS); Differentiated Academic Instruction and Academic Interventions for Struggling Students; Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Instruction and Strategic and Intensive Interventions for Challenging Students; Multi-tiered (RtI) Services, Supports, and Program; Effective Professional Development and On-Site Consultation and Technical Assistance. He is also the creator and Director of Project ACHIEVE, an evidence-based school improvement program that has been implemented nationwide for over 30 years. Contact Dr. Knoff via email at

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