Early ESSA Plans Boost District's School Improvement Role

States indicate routes toward improvement

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The Every Student Succeeds Act is supposed to open up a whole new world when it comes to school turnarounds. Instead of relying on federally mandated strategies, states and districts will now get to decide what to do about perennially struggling schools and schools where certain groups of students, like English-language learners, aren't doing well, as long as their ideas are backed by evidence.

All 17 of the state ESSA plans already submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval place a heavy emphasis on the role of districts in school improvement. That's not surprising, since ESSA calls for local systems to come up with plans to fix the lowest performers, with monitoring and assistance from the state.

A strong role for districts makes sense to Candice McQueen, the commissioner of education in Tennessee, which has been working to hone its school improvement approach for more than a half decade.

"To create intervention options that don't bring the districts along with you in terms of state support is potentially counterproductive. We want the district to be able to be building capacity," McQueen said. Ultimately, districts need to be able to support schools once they move on from the improvement process, she said.

Fewer Prescriptions

Generally, states are steering clear of the prescriptive menus of interventions favored under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA's predecessor, and instead explain how they plan to guide districts in devising their own improvement plans, an Education Week review of the ESSA proposals found.

Improvement Blueprint

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and districts new running room when it comes to turning around their lowest-performing schools. Here’s a look at how select ESSA plans handle the issue:

Connecticut: Would require the 10 lowest-performing districts to choose improvement plans for their low-performing schools from state guidance on evidence-based interventions. Guidance would cover academics, school climate, early learning, and other areas.

Illinois: Schools would select external organizations to aid them in school improvement through the state’s IL-EMPOWER network. Schools would have to set improvement targets focusing on at least one of the following: governance and management, curriculum and instruction, or climate and culture.

Maine: All of Maine’s districts have access to regional support networks, which help superintendents swap ideas. And the state’s lowest-performing schools—those in comprehensive support—would get extra financial resources and face-to-face coaches and mentors from the state.

North Dakota: North Dakota plans to use a continuous improvement system from AdvancED (a nonprofit group) with all of its schools, whether or not they are flagged for comprehensive improvement. The state is also partnering with the School Improvement Network, which would offer extra supports to the lowest-performing schools, including turnaround managers and coaches.

Tennessee: The state’s lowest-performing schools could be included in its Achievement School District. Districts with a high number of low-performing schools may end up jointly operating them with the state. Other districts may operate an innovation zone, or district within a district, made up of their lowest-performing schools.

Requirements that schools get rid of their principals and half the teachers are generally out. Promises to help districts figure out what's causing their schools to flounder—or to develop a "needs assessment," in the parlance of the law—are in.

"There's a lot of reliance on that needs assessment being the vehicle through which you'll identify the appropriate interventions," said Terra Wallin, who worked as a career staffer at the federal Education Department on school turnaround issues and is now a consultant with Education First. The organization is working with states on ESSA implementation. "You're not seeing a ton of detail on what [the school improvement] process is going to look like."

That's partly because states aren't required to put their school improvement plans into practice until the 2019-20 school year, since some will likely use 2018-19 as a planning year, Wallin explained.

"What you're seeing is totally logical. States have fewer details about school improvement because they are still figuring it out," she said.

Districts Matter

So far, no state has received federal approval for its plan. The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days to give states an answer on their proposals. Most states plan to submit their plans in the fall.

But even though the process is in its early stages, many states have put parameters into their plans aimed at

making sure districts think about the right set of issues as they generate their own school improvement strategies, said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks. Her group supports state and federal policymakers around personalized-learning systems.

"We're seeing a tremendous shift back to the local level, [but] we're seeing states trying to come up with strategies for putting parameters around that flexibility," Pace said.

Varied Approaches

Some states, including Oregon, plan to focus more of their assistance on districts that have a number of struggling schools or schools where subgroups of students aren't doing well, as opposed to just one. And some are giving the most direction and help to schools that have been foundering for years without any sign of improvement, as opposed to those that were just identified as low-performing or have made significant progress.

That's the case in Tennessee, which is building on the school improvement work it started more than five years ago, fueled in part by a grant from the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.

The state is essentially triaging schools that are flagged as needing extra help. Longtime low-performers and schools that aren't making progress despite multiple turnaround efforts could be placed on the "alpha track" and possibly end up in the Achievement School District, which is run by the state. Other struggling schools could be incorporated into a district-led improvement initiatives that allows schools to be exempt from certain district level policies, including around staffing.

Meanwhile, schools that were only recently identified as having achievement problems and those that are making rapid progress "have a lot of choice" in their interventions, McQueen said.

States are also grappling withhow much running room to give their districts when it comes to the requirement in ESSA that school improvement plans have evidence to back them up. That kind of assistance is particularly important to small, rural districts that may not have the capacity or personnel to weigh the evidence behind different programs on their own.

And by one count, nine states are coming up with a list of approved interventions or outside organizations that they think offer strong strategies for fixing schools. That's according to a forthcoming analysis by Results for America's Evidence in Education Lab, an organization that aims to help schools implement the evidence-based intervention requirements in ESSA. Those states are: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Vermont.

At least two—Illinois and Massachusetts—will essentially require districts to use approved interventions or partners. Others, such as New Mexico, say districts that want competitive grants for school turnaround work can come up with their own solutions, but the evidence backing up their approach must be at least as rigorous as what's behind the state-approved ideas.

ESSA also allows states to decide how to distribute their school improvement dollars. They can either provide them by formula or run a competition, putting a priority on schools they think are poised to make the best use of funding.

Sara Kerr, the executive director of the Evidence in Education Lab at Results for America, thinks states may get more bang for their buck out of the competitive route. She encouraged states to take a hard look at the evidence behind a district's approach before awarding the money.

Grant Competitions

Results for America found that at least six states committed in their plans to running some sort of competition for state school improvement cash: Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, and Tennessee.

Related Blog

Nevada has already test-driven this approach. The state decided to place what its plan called a "big bet" on data-driven instruction and educator quality. The state created a list of 19 interventions that help districts in those areas and are backed by evidence. Schools that proposed a plan incorporating one of those strategies were given an edge in the state's competition for federal Title I dollars aimed at school improvement.

Ultimately, every school that was awarded funding chose a strategy or partner from the list, said Brett Barley, the state's deputy superintendent for student achievement.

The approach, he said, seems to hold promise, including for some of the state's remote, rural schools, which he says are working with New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project, and other groups that specialize in teacher quality to tackle long-term problems like recruiting and retaining high-flying teachers and leaders.

What's more, Barley said, getting an early start has helped the state train itself on "what supporting schools in the ESSA era is going to look like."

Vol. 36, Issue 36, Pages 17, 20

Published in Print: June 21, 2017, as Early ESSA Plans Boost District Role in School Turnaround
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