Equity in education: Leveling the playing field for all students

Kirstin Toth \
June 30, 2016

After many years Congress recently updated the former No Child Left Behind Act, and replaced it with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA.) ESSA essentially answers criticisms about perceived federal oversight into local educational standards and accountability decisions by reverting many decisions back to the states. Under ESSA, the U.S. Education Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.” In other words, this leaves the work of setting up learning standards to the states, which are arguably at varying levels of preparedness to do this work. Fortunately in Ohio, we have established strong standards that, while no longer called “common core state standards,” in most cases align to college-and career-readiness that will help students succeed after high school.

This is a cautionary tale, however. As Ohio reviews its current standards, are they ready to accept new innovations that might help educators and students learn more and with better outcomes? Are we ready to change our teacher preparation programs, or level the playing field for all students, including those most at risk for starting school behind?  While the opportunity to innovate and advance at our state level is clear, the risk of going backwards is real and presents a threat to progress and equity.

No Child Left Behind encouraged some very positive reforms- advances like uniform graduation rate reporting, and continuous and ongoing assessment (despite Ohio’s fragmented and incoherent application of testing) actually supported equitable treatment for all students. With states’ new flexibility to develop their own standards for the implementation of ESSA, there’s a risk that standards will be lowered and we’ll see a retreat from focusing on kids with the greatest needs.

In Summit County, nearly 34 percent of all our children ages 3-5 enter kindergarten not ready to learn.


This is an astounding data point that translates into children struggling from an early age through all of their schooling unless we intervene. Under ESSA, we have the opportunity to increase the kinds of innovations and interventions that could help these young learners get on track.

I’ve often heard the phrase that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” Indeed under ESSA we are presented with a great opportunity but also a risk of failing in our vigilance to support those most in need. Let’s tell our Ohio Department of Education, charged with planning the implementation of ESSA in the coming months, that we value the kind of standards, measures and supports that level the playing field for all kids, especially those in poverty. Equity matters to decision-makers only if we say it matters.

Photo credit.