Illinois Dual Credit in Light of ESSA

by John Lang / Feb 29, 2016

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law the bi-partisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which aims to fashion a new educational landscape to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In this installment of OCCRL’s Dual Credit Blog Series, we look at the possible impact of ESSA on dual credit policy and programs in Illinois. 

DC logoShortly after its enactment, University of Illinois Professor Emerita Lizanne DeStefano provided a helpful summary of the key elements of ESSA.

  • States are still required to conduct testing in reading and math for students, grades 3–12, and to report disaggregated results according to race, socioeconomics, disability, and English language status.
  • States are required to develop intervention plans for schools performing in the bottom 5-percent of schools, based on federally mandated testing.
  • However, ESSA discontinues the national assessment (and penalty) system for teachers and schools, which was the centerpiece of NCLB and widely criticized by state education agencies and school districts, schools and teachers throughout the country.
  • Instead, states will decide how best to develop educational assessments of their schools.
  • ESSA includes $250 million for a new federal preschool program and greater support for magnet and charter schools.

How might ESSA impact dual credit in Illinois? Perhaps the most obvious effect is the opening up of time, energy, and educational resources along the continuum from the General Assembly and state agencies to school districts, teachers, and students in the classroom. In our research on dual credit as well as college and career readiness in Illinois, a common experience with NCLF has been the intense drain on education itself in order to comply with federal requirements. This should come as no surprise.

Beyond this general effect, we would like to focus on two aspects of ESSA in relation to dual credit. The first is ESSA’s commitment to preschool education and the second is a provision in the law that “helps to support and grow local innovations … developed by local leaders and educators.”

Preschool Education

A central commitment of dual credit policy in Illinois is serving the underserved. In 2008, the Illinois Dual Credit Task Force issued a report, which stated in part:

Dual credit programs provide chances for offering college credits to underrepresented students who are able to meet academic standards for participation. Some students may not even consider attending college, but are encouraged to attempt such courses through dual credit because the costs are lower for college credits, the setting is more familiar, and the courses are readily accessible. Achieving success in these courses can act as a gateway to continue in college.

The following year, the Dual Credit Quality Act established the aim of “offer[ing] opportunities for improving degree attainment for underserved student populations.” Dual credit helps undeserved students to prepare for college and career. Viewed in the same way, P–10 education helps to prepare students for dual credit in their junior and senior years. ESSA’s commitment to preschool education, as a crucial first step, shows an understanding of education as a long-term endeavor in order to prepare high school students to succeed at the college level. 

However, we might raise the question whether or not ESSA really is a long-term commitment. Dr. DeStefano points out that research on Head Start shows “early intervention programs boost disadvantaged students’ academic performance so they’re more on par with their peers when they enter school.” In this respect, ESSA’s commitment to preschool education is right on. DeStefano cautions, “The benefits disappear after three years” if “quality education is not maintained.” In simple terms this means that kids who might benefit from preschool education might also fall by the wayside by grades 3 and 4 — just when ESSA’s assessment and tracking of disadvantaged students kicks in. 

Moreover, in terms of dual credit, a real increase in access for underserved students’ needs to begin in the early years of education and continue through to high school graduation. In this respect, the limited emphasis on preschool education and the limited funding of $250 million seem to invite and beg for a more comprehensive approach to college and career preparation. It is no secret that schools serving underserved and disadvantaged students are most often suffering from limited resources themselves. This applies to urban but also rural schools throughout Illinois. 

Local Innovation

There is a response to this criticism, however, in ESSA itself — at least in some measure.  Our research into Illinois dual credit programs points to an important local innovation, led by local educators, that takes up the concern for access and participation by underserved students. Beginning in 2008, state funding for dual credit programs decreased dramatically. Since then funding has generally remained at Recession-related levels. The expectation would be the demise of dual credit. We discovered a much different trajectory. 

Over that same period, dual credit enrollment had increased by 23% statewide — from 76,000 to 90,000. Some dual credit programs have vastly exceeded this growth rate as well. For example, between 2011 and 2015, Harper Community College increased enrollment from 500 to 2300. In addition, from 2010 to 2014, McHenry County College went from 33 to 916 participants. How was this possible, especially in an era of reduced funding? The answer is local innovation. What appears to have fueled growth in dual credit during scarcity of resources was holding dual credit courses at high schools instead of college campuses. Additionally, supporting qualified high school instructors to teach the college-level courses.

The effects are three-fold. First, courses offered by high schools did not require college resources. Second, this allowed college districts to greatly reduce, or more often to waive tuition and fees. Third, because classes were held at the high school, the dual credit students — especially in rural communities — had greater access as a question of time, logistics, and travel resources. Getting to and from the college campus is not easy when it is 40 miles away. In short, college and high school partners came up with a solution that increased dual credit offerings and access at a lower cost to everyone.

Here is the limit of innovation, however, and the way ESSA could support further success. The limit is in the number of qualified teachers at the high school level. Again, especially in under-resourced districts, the difficulty in hiring, retaining, and replacing teachers with a master’s degree in the field or an appropriate number of graduate credits in the field was a common refrain. Alternatively, when teachers did have master’s degrees it was in education administration or psychology or policy — degrees related to professional development within school districts and not in relation to college-level teaching. This meant that high schools could not actually keep up with student demand. 

Resources that support professional development with an eye toward qualified dual credit teachers at the high school level would seem to be a great need and a tremendous opportunity to prepare students for college and career. While it remains to be seen how the U.S. Department of Education will support local innovation, the emerging dual credit model in Illinois seems to point to an evidence- and place-based success and an area of great need in order back up a shared commitment to serving the undeserved and disadvantaged.