The final version of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has swept through Congress and was signed into law earlier today by President Obama.

Since NCLB was apparently still leaving children behind and Race to the Top was pushing too many to the bottom, I guess a new name was probably in order.

I suspect the “Every Student is Smart, Happy, Athletic, Popular, Attractive, Has Good Hair, and Gets a Pony on Her Birthday Act” (ESSHAPAHGHGPBA) was a little too long. So ESSA it is!

At 1,061 mind-numbing pages, the final bill is about two reams of paper–or about four inches and ten pounds–thick.

My immediate reaction is “Yea!” and “Oh No.” I like most of what I’ve read so far, but big parts of the new bill still bother me. It’s a mix of glee and terror– like the anticipation of opening a box on Christmas morning, knowing there’s a chance a rattlesnake may be inside.

On the surface, there seems to be some pretty good stuff in here, especially the parts that castrate much of the Federal Government’s authority in state and local decision-making.

Yet, I am certain there will be a few not-so-pleasant surprises that eventually trickle out of these pages.

Lawmakers are great about inserting special gifts to their corporate cronies in these bills that don’t immediately reveal themselves, kinda like one of those Russian nesting dolls. We can be sure that the corporate interest in public education and our billions of state dollars is not going away anytime soon.

Whether Oklahoma lawmakers seize the opportunity to make meaningful and positive changes to our education laws remains to be seen. While I am optimistic that we have enough momentum to cause some change this spring, we also know from experience that our state legislators and their mandates can be just as problematic as the feds. This time, though, they can longer blame it on Arne Duncan, President Obama, and the liberal “big government” bureaucrats in Congress.

More importantly, we have to make sure we don’t just hang back in our schools and communities hoping our legislators don’t screw this up. If we do, then shame on us!

Our voice has never been most essential. We must educate ourselves on what this new legislation says, and what it DOES NOT say.

This needs to start today.

As a result, I am making a full review of the ESSA legislation my holiday project. (Of course, honey .  .  .  I mean AFTER I finish painting the laundry room.)

However, I would be remiss in not taking a quick bite, as they say, “while the elephant’s still hot.”

Okay, I guess nobody actually says THAT, but they do say that “the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” You probably don’t want to try to digest a 10,000-word treatise from me all at once anyway.

Subsequently, I have taken the time to carve out some possible sections that I may bite into over the next few weeks.

I hereby present, for your consumption: ESSA the Elephant!

How bout we start by taking a bite right of the elephant’s butt.

Soon after passage in the House of Representatives, this handy graphic was posted on the Twitters:

Yup, whatever you think this bill does or doesn’t do, one thing is for certain. It WILL hold ALL students to high academic standards. How? Reasons.

Let’s be clear. The federal government does not, and never will have, the capacity to hold all students to a high academic standard. Haven’t we learned anything from 15 years of NCLB failure?

I am not even sure how a bill written by a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington D.C. could claim such a thing. It’s like saying the Affordable Care Act will ensure all Americans will be healthy.

What this really translates into is a system that will force those of us who actually interact with students to somehow prove to people fifteen layers of bureaucracy apart from real schools that we are actually holding children to high standards .  .  . and that we can prove it because, you know, test scores.

However, when the test scores show that Joey at 11 years, 3-months, and 14 days of age is performing at a 10-year, 6-months, and 19 day-level, then, by-God, we’re doing something wrong to Joey! States will thus be forced to show the feds that they have appropriate carrots and sticks in place to prevent this from happening.

Another problem is that the feds don’t have any idea how to create a set of high standards that ALL children can achieve. And neither does anyone else in the world.

We have also learned from NCLB that having “high standards” or better yet, “college- and career-ready standards” has done very little to actually improve student learning.

“Holding ALL students to high expectations” is policy rhetoric which typically refers to making certain schools are educating disadvantaged or minority students, and is therefore promulgated by policy makers with all the thoughtfulness of a sneeze.

This type of phrasing is appealing based on its simplistic contrast with the idea of low standards, which obviously no one prefers. But, it begs a few basic questions.

First, are expectations of student learning being raised to the point that students are more demoralized than empowered? Are these expectations being imposed on students by lawmakers rather than developed and implemented by teachers? Are the standards reflective of a 20th century model of schooling that is failing many students already, or based on a new understanding of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century?

Most importantly is what is the desired outcome of high expectations for all students? Produce impressive scores on unimpressive Big Standardized (BS) tests? If yes, then I’m unimpressed as well.

NCLB began with the same airy slogans, hammering down reforms based on the need for “tougher standards,” “accountability,” and for “raising the bar” for all children. Yet, it can be argued that these test-based reforms have actually lowered meaningful expectations insofar as they rely on unconvincing, inaccurate indicators of progress — thereby perpetuating a “learn, regurg, and purge” model of learning.

Anyhow,  if students are held to higher standards, it will be for the same reason it always has been–their teachers and parents expect it. And it has nothing to do with what politicians in Washington DC or Oklahoma City do.

To summarize, the “higher expectations” part of the elephant might be more palatable if it wasn’t on the same plate as the “high stakes testing” mound of smelly gristle.

Unfortunately, ESSA doesn’t do enough to separate the two, leaving us to hold our noses while we chew through the fat.

I hope I haven’t ruined your appetite because we have a lot more of ESSA the Elephant on which to chew. For now, let’s all take some time to digest this piece.