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Authority vs. Power and the Every Student Succeeds Act

Andy Porter
Monday, April 4, 2016

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) strips the power of rewards and sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education in implementing Title I. Gone are any federal sanctions or rewards intended to influence states' decisions about their content standards, assessments, and teacher-evaluation systems. The new legislation does require states to intervene in schools ranked in the bottom 5% on academic performance; increases from 4% to 7% the amount of Title I funds that can be used for school turnaround; and continues to require that states submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. There is, however, no mechanism for enforcing compliance or quality.

Despite the U.S. Department of Education being stripped of rewards and sanctions to enforce state compliance, the substance of the law is relatively unchanged. States are still required to have challenging state academic standards, more commonly referred to as college- and career-readiness standards, in reading and mathematics, specifying at every grade level what students are to master; states must still administer student achievement tests aligned to their standards in English language arts and mathematics annually at grades three through eight and once in high school; and states must report results disaggregated by student subgroups (such as English language learners, students in special education, low-income students, and racial minorities).

I am the director of the IES-funded Center on Standards, Assessment, Instruction, and Learning ( C-SAIL ) that on July 1, 2015 began its studies of the implementation and effects of states’ new college- and career-readiness standards. The theoretical framework guiding our research identifies five policy attributes—specificity, consistency, authority, power, and stability—that can make a policy more impactful.

For understanding the change in federal policy with the new act, the two most relevant policy attributes are authority and power. A policy gains authority in several ways: through becoming law; through its consistency with social norms; through support from experts; or through promotion by charismatic leaders.

A policy’s power, however, is tied almost exclusively to the rewards and sanctions associated with it, such as monetary incentives. The idea that power operates through force while authority operates through persuasion is not a new one, and was perhaps most famously articulated by social theorist Max Weber.

“Power operates through force while authority operates through persuasion.”

How the above shifts in federal policy will affect the fate of the college- and career-readiness standards that C-SAIL is studying remains to be seen. We will share evidence as we uncover it over the next four years. I suspect power is needed to jump-start change, while authority is necessary for continuing commitment to implementation. If my suspicion is correct, there might have been enough time under NCLB—with its sanctions and incentives intact—for the policy to take hold. And once in place, perhaps the authority of ESSA will be able to sustain existing initiatives.

Change is difficult, and may require the lure of reward or the fear of penalty for initial state buy-in. With the U.S. Department of Education lacking power to enforce compliance, states will do what they are persuaded is best. They can, of course, build a college- and career-readiness policy system using all five of the policy attributes, including rewards and sanctions. On the other hand, they could water down their approach to implementing college- and career-readiness standards without fear of reprisal.