Students Can't Wait: ESSA and the Urgency of Now

"We have come ... to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of Democracy."

--Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963

As the ink dries on the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and powerful education interest groups rally to exploit the new flexibility in the law to gut school accountability systems, Dr. King's powerful words remind us of just who loses if state education leaders take their collective foot off the accelerator of school improvement: the poor students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities who still get less of everything that matters in education and too often end up trapped without the skills they need for post high school success.

While our schools have made significant progress over the last 15 years in improving achievement and graduation rates for historically underserved groups of students, there is still a long way to go to close longstanding gaps in opportunity and achievement. Now is not the time to slow down.

There is fierce urgency -- and opportunity -- in this moment. In resetting goals and designing new accountability systems for education, the new law offers equity-minded educators, civil rights and education advocates, business leaders, families and community leaders in every state a chance to work together to create a system that is truer to our ideals as a country. A system that focuses on quality for all students, one that is organized not around "gotchas," but around improvement.

But let's be clear: If accountability systems are our best vehicle for conveying urgency, advocates and community leaders must use the levers in the law to make sure that systems that have been characterized as "test and punish" don't become "test and ignore."

So what are critical features of a state accountability system that reflects real urgency, but is also fundamentally organized around improvement?

Too often, state- and district-led school improvement efforts have been episodic, with years of neglect in between. States cannot simply keep turning over the hourglass and watching the sand funnel through while groups of young people go underserved in their schools or districts.

When Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he sounded a call to the thousands gathered there and to America: There is no time to wait.

Today, we stand with the same urgency. And we sound the same call: There is no time to wait to give all students the education they need and deserve.

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