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Feb 17, 2016
at the end of 2015, Congress put an end to No Child Left Behind and replaced it with a new law: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new law is complex—more than 1,000 pages. It will affect every public school in the country.
At the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), where I help lead advocacy, we believe ESSA is an opportunity to do better for kids with learning and attention issues. We worked hard to make sure the law protects these students and offers them more opportunities for success. Working with allies in Washington, DC, we achieved great results. Here are some of the highlights:
  • ESSA has a new grant program for literacy in schools.
  • ESSA authorizes a new, comprehensive resource center for parents and teachers on literacy and students with disabilities. (Open a PDF about the resource center.)
  • ESSA limits the number of students with disabilities who take “alternate” tests. Taking alternate tests may take students off track for graduation and future success.
  • ESSA gives parents more information about how their children are doing and more ways to get involved.
This is all good news. But because ESSA is a new law, we don’t yet know what the law’s impact will be. The government has to interpret it. Schools and teachers have to put it into practice. There are several unknowns.
To help you understand what changes the law could bring, we spoke to several experts. Each is a leader in their field and has worked closely with NCLD’s policy team in the past. We asked these experts about what to expect for kids with learning and attention issues under ESSA.
Here are the big takeaways on why this new law is important, and what you might see in your school:

  1. Learning issues are written into ESSA.
    “There’s a lot in this new law. The good thing is that many of ESSA’s programs and requirements try to address the needs of students with learning issues. For example, dyslexia is mentioned in one of the literacy programs. That’s significant.”
    Bob Cunningham, In-House Advisor to Understood
  2. You’ll probably see a new focus on literacy in schools.
    “ESSA has a focus on literacy through new programs. First, the law will create a national center on teaching reading and writing, including for students with learning disabilities. Another part of the law includes a grant program for teaching reading skills. This program’s goal is to provide evidence-based literacy instruction for all students from early childhood through grade 12.”
    Pat Latham, Board of Directors and Past President of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, an Understood founding partner
  3. There will be more attention in schools on how kids learn.
    “For too long, national education policy has focused on what gets taught, without addressing how. ESSA will help change this. The law endorses Universal Design for Learning. This powerful framework helps teachers design classroom instruction that works for all learners. That includes kids with learning and attention issues.”
    —Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Director of Learning Science at CAST, an Understood founding partner
  4. You may see more student-centered approaches in your child’s school.
    “ESSA is a landmark for school innovation. It specifically encourages states to explore and expand on personalized learning and student-centered programs. That means tailoring what students learn based on strengths, needs and interests. ESSA even offers some funding to get this work started. With time, parents may see schools being redesigned to fit a more learner-centered approach.”
    —Brian Stack, Principal of Sanborn Regional High School, Kingston, New Hampshire
  5. Standardized tests will continue, but with more flexibility for schools.
    “I know standardized tests can at times be frustrating for families. But tests are useful because they give parents information on how schools are serving students. They also help us figure out how to help struggling students. That’s why ESSA keeps in place annual testing. But the law also encourages states to get rid of duplicate tests. And there’s more discretion on what to do with test results.”
    —Martha Thurlow, Director, National Center of Educational Outcomes
  6. One big change—ESSA encourages new measures of school success.
    “Graduation rates and test performance are important. They should continue to be big factors in school accountability to make sure schools are serving all kids well. But ESSA asks states to include other measures of success for students. Measures could include things like progress toward early literacy and rigorous coursework.”
    —Kati Haycock, The Education Trust
  7. More will depend on the state where you live.
    “Under ESSA, states will design plans for holding schools accountable. So much of what will happen for children under ESSA will depend on what states decide to do. ESSA has strong rules for holding states accountable for students with disabilities (including learning and attention issues) in their plans. But states also have a good deal of flexibility. The devil clearly will be in the state-level details.”
    Tom Hehir, Former Director, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education
  8. Teacher qualifications and training will be determined by your state.
    “Teachers play the biggest role in ensuring every child gets a good education. The good news is that ESSA has some new training programs for literacy and the use of a multi-tier system of supports. But ESSA no longer requires that teachers be ‘highly qualified’ under federal law. So the challenge for parents is to understand what teachers are required to know to be certified in their state. You’ll have to ask if your child’s teacher knows how to work with kids with learning and attention issues.”
    —Margaret McLaughlin, Professor of Special Education, University of Maryland
  9. Parents will play an even bigger role.
    “With ESSA, states will design their own accountability plans. These plans are critical because they will explain how schools will help students who struggle. And that’s where parents can make a big difference: The law requires state and local officials to involve parents in this developing these plans. Now, more than ever, I encourage you to get involved!”
    —Peggy McLeod, Deputy Vice President of Education and Workforce, National Council of La Raza
    “‘If you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu.’ This saying is truer than ever when it comes to ESSA. Parents have to get informed and involved. And advocates and parent organizations, like the Parent Centers, are helping parent voices be heard in every state.”
    —Debra Jennings, Director, Center for Parent Information and Resources at SPAN