This summer, state governments all over the country will be busy updating their state education plans and getting ready to make significant changes in public schools. This opportunity is a result of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama this past December. ESSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It’s been 14 years since the last major overhaul of our national education law—the last reauthorization is more commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Research shows that healthy students are better learners and that a healthy school environment is critical to academic achievement. That’s why we are encouraged that ESSA can give our communities the flexibility and power needed to make healthy schools—and successful students—a common reality.
ESSA is a profound change from No Child Left Behind in at least three significant ways:
- ESSA recognizes the link between student health and academic achievement and the need for schools to support the whole child. For example, under ESSA, states and school districts are able to use Title I funding to implement school health and wellness programs.
- ESSA focuses on supporting the conditions of learning and a well-rounded education rather than defining educational success only in terms of academic outcomes.
- ESSA gives significantly more power to State Education Agencies (SEAs) to implement and regulate this law at the state-and-local level. States and school districts will have more flexibility and autonomy.
While ESSA recognizes the importance of supporting the whole child, there is a critical need to ensure states and school districts implement the vision set forth in ESSA and use the new flexibility presented by the law to support student health and wellness.
We had a firsthand look at how this law is being considered for implementation on the ground in Illinois. Last month we had the opportunity to provide input in our home state of Illinois, at a Listening Session hosted by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) at National Lewis University. This session was one of ISBE’s stops on their statewide Listening Tour to engage stakeholders and collect input on ESSA implementation. Melina Wright, Federal Liaison at ISBE, gave an overview of the new law and what opportunities ISBE and local school districts have to define the shape of this new law here in Illinois. Attendees then had the chance to testify and give recommendations on how ESSA should be implemented.
HSC testified and focused on three important ways ISBE can ensure student success:
Include multiple, non-academic, measures of school quality or success measuring health and wellness in the state accountability plan
ESSA requires that all states, including Illinois, create school accountability systems that include at least one non-academic indicator that facilitates student growth and improvement. These non-academic indicators function as measures of school quality that complement traditional measures of academic performance (e.g. standardized testing). Some examples of non-academic indicators include student engagement, educator engagement, school climate, or chronic absence. We encourage ISBE to choose strong, non-academic indicators that are evidence-based, actionable, and do not increase testing for students. Instead, we recommend that ISBE choose an indicator that is reflective of students’ learning environment, such as school climate measures or rates of chronic absenteeism.
Include health data in comprehensive needs assessments
Under ESSA, schools must conduct a needs assessment to inform their school improvement plans and school-wide Title I programs. Similarly, school districts receiving more than $30,000 in funding through the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant Program must conduct a school-level needs assessment that informs their programming. Based on these needs assessment, schools are responsible for creating a comprehensive plan to fund school programs and improvements. This funding can (and likely should) be explicitly used to implement school-wide health programs. Thus, we strongly recommend that this needs assessment includes student health data as well as data on how school climate supports student health.
Include health and wellness on Illinois’s state report card of school performance
In accordance with ESSA, ISBE is required to create an annual state report card of school performance and disseminate it widely. While this state report card must show rates of chronic absenteeism and violence at the minimum, it can—and should—include additional measures of health and wellness in Illinois schools. Examples of additional health and wellness metrics could include days of physical education per week, measures of school climate, whether or not a school has a full-time school nurse and whether or not a school provides students with access to mental health services.
Engage stakeholders in local implementation of ESSA
In order to effectively implement these measures and all features of ESSA, stakeholder engagement is crucial. Illinois’s state plan will be strongest if and when our laws call for the engagement of parents, teachers, staff and community partners. Ideally, the federal government or the state will provide schools with best practices for involving stakeholders in this process.
HSC will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Education and ISBE while also consulting with education and health experts to more fully develop these recommendations.