Brianne Gidcumb | December 2015

Unpacking ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015. Many arts educators and advocacy groups are celebrating the end of the No Child Left Behind era and looking toward a brighter future that embraces the arts in education, but before we throw the confetti, let’s unpack a little bit about ESSA, take a look at the implications of ESSA on arts education in our schools, and establish where we might go from here.

About ESSA

What about ESSA? It is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a 1965 civil-rights law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was committed to providing equal opportunity for all students, particularly disadvantaged or high-needs students. ESEA has been reauthorized many times in its 50-year history, including in 2001, when it was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind.

Like ESEA and NCLB, ESSA was crafted in the spirit of seeking to minimize achievement gaps with typically underachieving, and at-risk student demographics. This new reauthorization seeks to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach of NCLB to strike a balance between the roles of federal, state, and local governments in formulating education policy.

There will be a period of transition from No Child Left Behind and ESSA. In the 2016-2017 school year, states will continue to watch low-performing schools, and those with big achievement gaps. ESSA will be fully in place starting with the 2017-2018 school year.

About ESSA Highlights

The U.S. Department of Education lists the following as being highlights of the ESSA law:

  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires that all students be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
  • Sustains and expands investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lower-performing schools, where groups of students are no making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.


One of the major shifts from NCLB to ESSA is that under the new law, some of the responsibility of managing education reform will be passed from the federal government, and handed over to the states. In fact, the aim is to create a better balance between federal, state, and local governments in determining school improvement and ensuring student learning and growth.

Under NCLB, where federal funding hinged on schools’ performance on high-stakes testing, many teachers felt pressure to teach to the test. Thus, focusing on reading and math instruction at the expense of other curricular areas. The new law allows states to determine types of testing that will more accurately measure student learning and growth. Students in grades 3-8 will still be tested, as they were under NCLB, but states will now have flexibility in deciding how and when to administer tests. As well as, exploring different means of testing that will more accurately determine student learning and growth.

Additionally, states will decide whether or not to adopt Common Core. In fact, the law maintains complete neutrality in whether or not Common Core is addressed at the state level.

Wins for the Arts

A “Well-Rounded Education”

In the new ESSA law, the arts and music are included in a definition of a “well-rounded education,” which has replaced the current term “core academic subjects.” This term, “well-rounded education,” including the arts and music, is clear throughout the bill, and ensures that federal funds are used to support educational opportunities through a variety of subjects. Those subjects include English, language arts, writing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, geography, computer science, music, career and technical education, health, physical education, and any other subject determined by state or local governments.

Funding for Arts Education

Having the arts included in the definition of a “well-rounded education” creates eligibility for funding under ESSA, including Title I funds and grants. Additionally, the bill includes a new program, Assistance for Arts Education. This replaces the current Arts in Education program. This $20 million grant program will promote arts education for disadvantaged students, by providing professional development for arts teachers, developing arts-based educational programming, and building partnerships to ensure that all students have access to a “well-rounded education,” including the arts.


The pressure to perform on high-stakes testing in math and reading to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) has cut into arts instruction throughout the tenure of No Child Left Behind. However, about ESSA, AYP will be replaced with measures that will be determined by states, and will hopefully move us away from such high-stakes testing.


In a somewhat surprise move, the bill includes support to schools that provide a well-rounded education through programs that integrate academic subject areas, including the arts, into STEM. This solidifies the place of STEAM in our schools!

Improving Lower-Performing Schools

The School Improvement Grant (SIG), which has been the source of funding for Turnaround Arts programs, has been eliminated under ESSA. However, states will be required to improve student learning within the lowest-performing five percent of their schools, the current 4% Title I allocation set aside by states has been increased to a minimum of 7%, which states can use to help these underperforming schools, potentially with arts-based programs such as Turnaround Arts.

Before we celebrate…

Although there are many “wins” for the arts in ESSA, there are a couple of things to keep in mind and keep watch of:

What are “the arts?”

“The arts” are not specifically defined and enumerated in the law, although it assumed that the arts the law refers to are dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts. Music is listed specifically alongside “the arts,” however, this has created some concern that dance, theatre, and media arts will not receive the attention they deserve because those reading the law will see “art” and “music”, and assume that a well-rounded education includes only visual art and music.

Arts as Core Content

The arts were defined as core academic content under No Child Left Behind, alongside math and literacy, and despite this, arts instruction has been edged out in favor of time dedicated to those contents that were the subject of high-stakes testing. So although the arts are now defined as part of a “well-rounded education,” we must continue to advocate for their place in our schools, and we must remind our colleagues, administrators, government officials, and communities about why the arts are vital to developing lifelong learners.

What’s Next?

So, in the face of these changes, what can we as arts and arts integrated educators do to ensure that this is the step forward for arts education that we hope it is? We must remain vigilant and we must advocate for the arts. We must focus on creating an educational system where educating the whole child and providing a well-rounded education that includes the arts is undeniably what’s best for our students.

 Where to read more about ESSA:

ESEA Reauthorization: how Will ESSA’s Regulatory Process Work?:

Full Legislative Analysis of All Key Music and Arts Provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (NAfME):

Every Student Succeeds Act (U.S. Department of Education):

The Every Student Succeeds Act vs. No Child Left Behind: What’s changed?:

“Waiving” Goodbye to No Child Left Behind:

In ESSA, Arts are Part of ‘Well-Rounded Education’:

With Passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, Life After NCLB Begins:

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: