ESSA Creates Opportunities for Parent Advocates

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015 is an exciting development for parents, teachers, school leaders, and others who believe U.S. schools should meet the needs of high-ability students.  The ESSA revised and reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), previously known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

For the first time in history, our main U.S. education law (ESSA/ESEA) now includes provisions that support gifted and talented students. This positive development was achieved through years of federal advocacy by NAGC, gifted state affiliate organizations, members of Congress, educators, parents, and others who support gifted education. These longstanding efforts to bolster congressional support for the TALENT Act (To Aid gifted and high-ability Learners by Empowering the Nation’s Teachers Act) and increase funding for the Javits Program (a federal program that provides grants for gifted education research), finally resulted in the addition of positive measures for high-ability students into the ESSA.

What are the new provisions and what do they mean? 

Title II of ESSA focuses on professional development for teachers and school leaders. Federal funds (approximately $3 billion) are distributed to states through a formula; in turn, the states provide subgrants to school districts. Two new required provisions and one new “allowable use” of Title II funds are relevant for gifted education:

  • States submitting professional development plans under Title II must now describe how their teachers and principals are helping all students, including gifted and talented students, to achieve and learn more. This provision should inspire states to consider whether they are properly training teachers in how to develop the skills of their high-ability learners.
  • School districts receiving Title II money must address the learning needs of all students, including gifted and talented students, in their professional development programs.  Parents, teachers, and advocates should talk to their districts about how this provision will be implemented.
  • Schools may use their professional development funds to train teachers and other school leaders on how to serve gifted and talented students and those high-ability learners who have not yet been identified as gifted. This TALENT Act-derived provision states that teachers and school leaders should receive training in strategies for supporting gifted and talented students, such as acceleration, enrichment, curriculum compacting, dual enrollment, and early entrance to kindergarten, among others. The fact that specific ways to serve advanced learners are mentioned in federal law for the first time marks significant progress.

Title I of ESSA governs the distribution of around $15 billion in federal education money to states and school districts serving disadvantaged students. While Title I made no mention of gifted and talented students in the past, it now has two provisions that are relevant to gifted students: 

  • States and districts are required to publish student achievement data from state assessment tests, disaggregated by student subgroup, at each achievement level. Before, the only data collection required was for students achieving at proficiency and below. The absence of information about students achieving at advanced levels has been a big obstacle to better serving high-ability students in the past. This new data on the demographics and percentages of students who are achieving at the advanced level of state assessments will inform conversations about changes that may be needed in order to better address the needs of high-ability students.
  • The second relevant addition to Title I is language specifically stating that Title I funds may be used to support gifted and talented learners. Teachers and school leaders need to be educated about the fact that gifted and talented students exist in low-income communities and that appropriate support and services for these students can be funded through Title I.

Two other ESSA provisions of note for advanced learners:

  • States may use computer-adaptive tests for accountability purposes. Grants may be available to the states for the development of these assessments. For students performing above grade level, these computer-adaptive tests are important in that they allow schools to measure whether gifted and talented students are learning new information and moving up to the next level.
  • The Javits Program, which funds critical research into best practices in gifted education, especially for disadvantaged students, has been retained and will receive $12 million in funding for fiscal year 2016. It is good news that this small, but mighty program lives on and has been funded at its highest level since its creation in 1988.

ESSA has restored accountability for student achievement to the states, but:

  • Requires reporting on which students are achieving at the advanced level
  • Requires that Title II funds be used to help teachers support gifted and talented students
  • Clarifies that Title I funds may be used to support low-income gifted students.  

What can parents do to capitalize on this opportunity?

These changes to ESSA provide parents of high-ability students with a timely opportunity to engage their local schools and districts in conversations about how the federal requirements will be met. Here are some ways parents can elevate the conversation now:

Talk to your child’s superintendent and school board about what their plans are to use federal funds to identify and serve advanced learners and to provide professional development in the proven educational strategies listed in Title II. If your school district receives Title I funds due to its percentage of low-income students, your teachers and administrators may need to be educated about the fact that there are high-ability students in poor communities and that funds are now explicitly available for supporting these students.

It may be more efficient and effective to work with other parents than raise these questions on your own. You might check the school board calendar for the next public hearing where these questions could be posed as a group. Parents with some knowledge of gifted education strategies could volunteer to serve on a committee.

Find out who controls Title I and II funding decisions in your state because they may need to be informed about the changes to the law. Ask questions about who will be responsible for notifying schools that they can use Title I and Title II funds to identify and serve gifted students. 

Contact your state gifted organization, if one exists, to find out what it is doing to help educate policymakers and power-holders in the state about these new requirements. Understand that the 2016-17 school year will mark a big transition, with applications for federal grant programs beginning in July 2016 and state accountability plans going into effect in the 2017-18 school year. Asking questions and gathering information is the place to start.

Write letters to key stakeholders, such as your state superintendent or prominent newspapers, about how the state education agency will change its practice in response to the changes in federal law in order to draw attention to this subject.

Search your networks for parents who may have connections to education reporters in the state. Parents could contact those reporters/columnists and suggest that the new changes in ESSA with respect to gifted and talented children would make an interesting article/column.

While the incorporation of language about advanced learners is a huge success for the gifted education community, the timing is right for parents and advocates to draw attention to these provisions and to monitor their implementation in order for tangible benefits to be realized by high-ability students.  


Carolyn E. Welch is an attorney whose practice involves educational advocacy on behalf of students with various needs and abilities. Her work includes representing low-income students and families from the city of Chicago to help ensure that their educational needs are met. She is an advocate for gifted children, serving as an officer of the Midwest Center for the Gifted, a member of the Parent Editorial Content and Advisory Board of the National Association for Gifted Children, and formerly the Advocacy Committee Co-Chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. Carolyn received her JD from the Georgetown University Law Center.