The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) just celebrated its third anniversary, and a fair question to ask is: What has changed? After all, when Congress passed the legislation on a broad bipartisan vote, it sent a powerful message about the need for the federal role in education to be reduced in favor of leadership at the state and local levels. Those of us who argued that the U.S. Department of Education was being unduly prescriptive, even stifling, worked hard to secure enactment of ESSA, which not only acknowledged the concerns but made a concerted effort to remedy them.
We can be thankful that Washington has placed an emphasis on the very local creativity and innovation that has driven public education to be such an important contributor to the success of our democracy for so many years. Some would argue that ESSA was simply restoring something that should not have been disturbed in the first place. In any event, the reality is we now clearly have the ball and an open field to carry it. With this newfound focus on local district leadership, we need to consider what those in the school system can do to have the greatest positive impact on student achievement.
Certainly, school boards play an especially vital role by setting the vision, adopting policies, allocating resources, and providing accountability. They represent the community’s ownership of the public schools and are its representatives in ensuring that the education system is producing a strong return on the public’s investment. Superintendents, as the chief education and executive officers of the system, translate those goals into action by assembling and leading staffs that deliver needed results. The importance of boards and superintendents working closely together cannot be emphasized too strongly; they comprise the most important team in any district, and their ability to work well together is tied directly to the effectiveness of the school system.
It would be a mistake to limit school leadership to these players alone. We know that the core work of public education—student learning—occurs in schools, and actions taken there every day by principals, teachers, and other personnel are as significant as any decisions made in the central office.
This fundamental notion is at the heart of a recent “Call to Action” by the National Labor-Management Partnership, consisting of NSBA, AASA (The School Superintendents Association), the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. The paper cites decades of research demonstrating the benefits of collaboration on student outcomes and enhancing school transformation. One example: Studies have shown that decisions shared by school leaders at all levels can mitigate teacher turnover and low student achievement, even in high-poverty schools. This must happen by design, not simply through the goodwill of the persons involved—that is, school boards need to establish an expectation of collaboration and support a culture that sustains it.
Working together for important shared goals really does matter. Knowing that is one thing; ensuring that it happens every day is at the heart of impactful school leadership.