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What is a "Well-Rounded Education?"

Federal legislation is often filled with new terminology that takes years to decipher and fully implement. The ESSA of 2015 is no different. While much remains unchanged from the previous iteration of ESEA, some of the terms leave us scratching our heads wondering what they mean and how to apply them. One such term is “well-rounded education.” I am delighted that we got rid of AYP (annual yearly progress) and some of the more onerous requirements of NCLB, but what exactly does a well-rounded education look like and how do we deliver it? If we are going to be successful in our implementation of this new mandate, we need more understanding of what it entails.

A Little History

The Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965 (ESEA) was the first major federal foray into guiding the national education system. Before that time, individual states enacted laws pertaining to the education of their children with minimal federal oversight or intervention. There was little, if any, collaboration between states regarding standards, expectations, or outcomes. There were many difficulties, however, with that kind of system. As families moved from one state to another, students often landed in a school that had a drastically different set of instructional objectives, scope and sequence of subject matter, and/or grade level expectations. As part of the War on Poverty enacted by President Lyndon Johnson, the ESEA legislation laid out a fixed set of guidelines public schools needed to follow to obtain federal education funds. With each successive reauthorization of the ESEA, curricular goals and assessment guidelines were updated to reflect the current political climate and national educational needs of the country. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) is just the latest rendition of that original law.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 23, 2001. The legislation was crafted to address flagging student achievement scores in the United States and the low ranking of American students when compared with their global peers. By increasing school accountability, reducing the number of uncertified or under-certified teachers in America’s classrooms, and offering families an opportunity to leave “failing” schools, America’s schools and students should show significant academic gains which would be reflected by the annual standardized testing regimen laid out in the law. For those of us who struggled through and survived NCLB, we can state unequivocally that those goals were not met. In many cases, the level of student achievement declined and morale for all stakeholders suffered immensely. So, it was with great hope that we welcomed the arrival of ESSA. Now, we just need to figure out what is required in this law.

What Has Changed?

Our years under NCLB left all of us (classroom teachers, school administrators, county supervisors, and state department personnel) with a very narrow focus on reading, mathematics, and science instruction. Because reading and math were the “trigger points” for penalty or praise, the bulk of our instructional time was spent on these two subjects. Even though the federal legislation touted a broad band of “core subjects” that were supposed to be taught, the bottom line was that individual teachers, schools, and counties would be called to account if our students didn’t perform well on the reading and math portions of the annual test.

The ESSA still requires an annual assessment with a focus on reading and math scores. This is likely a requirement we shall have with us always. The big difference is the lack of penalty and punitive measures that came with low performance. Under ESSA, if a school has flagging achievement they receive resources and assistance from state and county agencies to support learning, improve instruction, and raise performance. Of course, I imagine there is a given timeline in which this must happen, but those timelines and criteria are developed by each state. The good news is this: the “succeed or else” mandate is no longer hanging over our heads.

The components of the ESSA include all the same core subjects found in NCLB: English language arts, civics, government, math, science, history, geography, economics, foreign languages, and the performing arts. As a teacher in the NCLB years, I didn’t sense a lot of impetus placed on the majority of these. Classroom teachers, like myself, focused on ELA, math, and to a lesser extent science. The new ESSA adds writing, engineering, music, health, technology, computer science, career & technical education, and physical education as core components. Altogether these subjects form the basis of a well-rounded education for America’s children, and teachers everywhere would agree that each of these components add value to the academic experience. The challenge we are left with, however, is the time and ability to fit all this subject matter into the allotted instruction time we have. It seems to me that in order for students to be given a well-rounded education, teachers are going to have to deliver well-rounded instruction. How is that to be done with the constraints we have been given?

Now What?

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act has dialed back the role of the federal government in the day-to-day operation of America’s school. With that change comes an increased opportunity for those of us on the local level. We, at the local level, have been given great latitude to design an instructional plan that best meets the needs of the students in our classrooms. That design must include taking a hard look at our state standards, deeper insight into the student data we have at our disposal, and a critical view of the curricula we have been provided. It is my opinion that we have been given a gift; we have a very real opportunity to design instructional activities and lessons that more precisely match the skill deficiencies and requirements of our students. Having the ability, luxury, and directive to include the arts and related subject areas into daily plans, we can begin to build a world-class educational experience that other nations can envy instead of the other way around.

Our instructional practice is no longer tied to the AYP grindstone. We truly have been given freedom to teach the way our children learn, and we would be wise not to waste the opportunity. Although we know that the gears of change turn slowly in education, we also know that if things don’t improve with this legislation other legislation will be enacted to force change in our public schools. Our future is in our hands. Let’s not miss this opportunity to do great things in our classrooms. As I tell the teachers I work with, “Close your classroom door and do something amazing today!”

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