Betsy DeVos Rips State ESSA Plans in ‘Tough Love’ Speech to Chiefs

By Daarel Burnette II — March 05, 2018 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—in a speech she labeled “tough love"—laid into states’ accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act for not being ambitious enough, lacking innovation, and not taking full advantage of the law’s flexibilities.

Her jarring, 40-minute address struck a harsh, somewhat dismissive tone, with DeVos telling state schools chiefs that while she doesn’t believe it’s her job to force President Donald Trump’s education agenda onto states, she’s held her tongue for too long.

The state plans turned in to her department that describe how states will use billions of federal dollars have barely met the minimum requirements of the law and are compliance-driven, she said. That defeats the purpose of the law, she said, which was to allow for states to take charge of the nation’s education agenda.

“ESSA was enacted partially in response to the widespread calls from state school chiefs—including many in this room—to give you the flexibility and opportunity to address your state’s unique challenges,” DeVos said to those gathered for the Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference here. “Well, this law gives you that chance. The trouble is ... I don’t see much evidence that you’ve yet seized it. At least not in the ESSA plans I’ve thus far approved.”

And she told chiefs that “just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students. ESSA plans aren’t a ceiling. ... These plans merely establish the floor.”

The comments drew widespread condemnation from state chiefs who have so far tried to forge a conciliatory relationship with the U.S. Department of Education under DeVos.

Several said that their education initiatives should not be judged solely on the planning documents that describe how they will use federal funds.

“Our ESSA plan is just a subset of all the things going on in Ohio,” said Paolo DeMaria, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction. “We haven’t gotten it all figured out yet.”

ESSA’s devolution of policymaking power from federal to state control has unleashed a flurry of action in states, they pointed out, including initiatives to overhaul state funding formulas, historic shifts in governance authority, and tough conversations between policymakers, teachers, and parents over lagging academic indicators.

Much of that work will play out in the coming years.

“I’ve never seen more talk about innovation in our state than I’ve seen in the last year,” said North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who took issue with DeVos’ tone.

DeVos has spent her tenure traveling the country pushing vouchers, charter schools, and other options to give parents more choice, which has drawn the ire of teachers and others. She has also pushed for less federal regulation over education policy. In a sign of the times, she dramatically consolidated her department last month, laying off several dozen employees.

Despite her harsh words for states’ ESSA plans, however, DeVos so far has approved 33 state plans, along with those of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. At the national level, Democrats in Congress have accused DeVos of approving plans that don’t meet basic tenets of the law, especially how states handle the test scores of special education students, English Language Learners and students of color.

Some state chiefs said at Monday’s conference that the ESSA approval process has been confusing and inconsistent. While some states are allowed to flout the law in areas around student accountability, others are given the go-ahead, said Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky’s education commissioner.

“You can be consistently good or consistently bad but don’t be inconsistent,” Pruitt quipped.

But DeVos said while she’s approved plenty of plans that she thinks meet bare minimum requirements of the law, she’s been disappointed in how plans fall short on ways to improve public education systems.

“I have refrained from expressing my opinion, thus far, out of respect for the process,” she said. “But since we’re all in this room together now, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share some candid thoughts. Around my house, we call it ‘tough love.’”

For example, she said some states’ redesigned ESSA-compliance report cards are confusing, lack detail, and send conflicting messages about student success. She seemed to be alluding to California’s “dashboard” approach which has received plenty of criticism within the state.

She challenged chiefs to eschew a compliance mentality in dealing with schools where students are bullied, “stepping over rats, breathing in mold, and dodging fists,” and lacking the teachers and technology they need to learn.

And she said she’s been disappointed in how few states are interested in innovative assessment programs authorized under ESSA’s flexibility.

“There are some bright spots among the plans,” said DeVos, calling out some parts of Louisiana’s and New Mexico’s plans. “But even the best plan is short on the meaningful solutions that the law encourages. Even the best plan doesn’t take full advantage of the law’s built-in flexibility. And launching a PR push to defend these plans doesn’t change that. It misses the point,” DeVos said.

State chiefs in recent months have described hurdles in collecting and disseminating reliable data, recalibrating state accountability systems in an environment politically hostile toward tests and dealing with a constant churn in political leadership that makes it difficult to set into place long-term agendas.

They have repeatedly said they’re committed to equity between student groups, though a growing chorus of civil rights groups say that’s not true based on the evidence they see.

Not all of the state chiefs at Monday’s conference took issue with the secretary’s comments.

Nevada state education Superintendent Steve Canavero, whose state has consistently been ranked as having some of the worst academic outcomes in the nation, said he appreciated DeVos’ prodding to do better.

“I appreciate the push,” he said. “She’s challenging us to rethink our flexibilities.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.