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Education Opinion

Response: There Is ‘Hope That ESSA Will Bring Positive Change To Classrooms’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 15, 2016 24 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What practical impact do you think The Every Student Succeeds Act will really have in the classroom?

The Every Student Succeeds Act is the successor to No Child Left Behind. Regulations are still being worked out, but many educators - including me - wonder if it really will have any kind of impact on our work in the classroom.

Today, Randi Weingarten, Barnett Berry, Morgan Polikoff, Erik M. Francis, and Jacki Gran off their responses to the question.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Barnett and Morgan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I have a few specific concerns of my own about the new law, particularly related to its impact on English Language Learners. I’m concerned that the demand that ELLs be reclassified and moved out of support programs in five years will harm many of our students, a concern highlighted in a brand-new study described elsewhere in Education Week.

You might also find these other resources useful:

The Best Resources For Understanding The Every Student Succeeds Act

The Best Resources For Learning How The Every Student Succeeds Act Affects English Language Learners

The Best Resources For Learning About The Ins & Outs Of Reclassifying ELLs

Now, onto today’s guests:

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of the American Federation of Teachers:

This is exactly the right question to ask, and exactly the question that should guide policymakers and administrators as the law is implemented.

That said, what happens in classrooms will depend a lot on whether states and school districts embrace the opportunity ESSA presents to do a real reset and to partner with teachers, parents, and community members to really rethink how we teach, and how we reach, each child.

Though the law is not perfect, the AFT supported its passage, as it tempers the testing fixation, prohibits the federal government from continuing policies that increased high-stakes testing, and maintains the commitment to equity that started with Lyndon Baines Johnson and the first ESEA--deploying $15 billion to help level the playing field for kids in need, so they too can be provided opportunities to be prepared for life, college and career. ESSA turns the page on the broken policies of No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers and Race to the Top.

The AFT has advocated getting the law right and our membership has demonstrated how important the law is through its advocacy. AFT leaders and members testified in front of Congress and at several congressional district-level town hall meetings; more than

200 rank-and-file members and leadership visited their members of congress in person; more than 20,000 responded called their member of congress, and AFT members took more than 100,000 actions online, including nearly 20,000 comments submitted to Congress.

This union fought, on behalf of our 1.6 million members and the students we serve, for the end of test-and-sanction policies that were suffocating schools, demoralizing teachers and students, and creating anxiety for parents. We are now working to ensure the U.S. Department of Education properly regulates the law and that states, districts and schools implement it in a way that achieves the potential of ESSA: that every public school is a place where parents want to send their kids, where students are engaged, where the curriculum is rich, where joy is taken in teaching and learning--and where, ultimately, all children succeed.

States now have much greater power than they have had under No Child Left Behind. That means they have a chance to fight to maintain the status quo--despite calls from parents, teachers, students, business leaders and community members for change.

But some states, I hope most states, will recognize the law for what it is--an opportunity to strengthen our public schools, to increase equity, to adapt and to innovate; an opportunity to broaden the conception of schooling that has been so narrowed under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and waivers, and move toward preparing all students for college, career and citizenship.

But right now, an opportunity is all it is. I really believe in the promise of ESSA as it was conceived - but as we all know, the devil is in the details. Implementation will make or break this law. And for those states that would rather maintain the status quo, we must come together to speak loudly for our students and our schools.

When we talked to AFT members about ESSA in December, we found out that their biggest fear about the new law was that “nothing will change.” That’s pretty telling - and I can’t blame teachers and school staff for feeling that way. But here are a few ways I hope ESSA will help bring positive change to our classrooms:

ESSA can help end the obsession with testing in schools and provide room for a broader, student-centered curriculum that focuses on much more than math and reading. Although the requirement to test students remains the same, states and districts now have the opportunity to rethink accountability and to incorporate assessments as just one type of indicator to help inform instruction and improve schools.

Beyond requirements to test students in English and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and science once in each grade span, states and districts have broad flexibility. To help reduce the obsession with standardized tests, ESSA enables states and school districts to use funds to audit state and local assessment systems to eliminate unnecessary tests and improve assessments. It also allows states to set a target limit on the total amount of time that students spend taking assessments for each grade. In fact, an exciting pilot program in which seven states can initially be accepted will allow the use of project- and performance-based assessments in lieu of regular state standardized assessments.

In addition, AFT fought for stronger charter-school accountability and transparency provisions--provisions that will provide much-needed scrutiny and monitoring for the benefit of both students and teachers. The act also contains language designed to help ensure that charters educate the same populations as neighborhood public schools.

ESSA allows states to create support-and-improve accountability systems. ESSA can put an end to test-and-punish accountability for schools and teachers. The act allows states to incorporate multiple measures of school success into accountability systems, and to work with districts and schools to actually support and improve schools, rather than simply sort and punish. ESSA also requires more transparency around funding and resources--a critical step to help move us toward a more equitable system for students. Additionally, the federal government will no longer specify sanctions (school closings, teacher firings, forced transfers, etc.) in return for money. Decisions about interventions now fall to the states. This means that should states choose to reject the status quo, districts can work with schools to tailor interventions to the needs of specific schools and populations. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, educators and families can look at evidence-based strategies such as academic rigor and authentic instruction, smaller class size and greater personalization, and staff capacity building and collaboration

ESSA values practitioner voice and professional judgment. Across its text, the act includes provisions that can elevate the profession and improve conditions for teaching and learning. ESSA requires consultation with educators and other stakeholders, and allows local educational agencies to use funds to develop feedback mechanisms--such as educator surveys--that can improve working conditions. It also provides specific language on growth and leadership, allowing states to use funds for centers on induction, class-size reduction, mentoring, career pathways and recruitment of a diverse teacher workforce.

ESSA ends federally mandated evaluations. The new law stopped the feds from requiring Common Core and from closing neighborhood schools. One of the most important changes was the end of federal test-based teacher evaluations, which creates an opportunity to design and implement teacher evaluation systems that grow and strengthen the profession, instead of sorting and punishing teachers. States can develop and implement systems but are required to cooperate with stakeholders, including teachers, paraprofessionals and their unions.

I want to end with the biggest change we will see in the ESSA era:

States now have much greater power than they have had under No Child Left Behind. That includes the power to listen to - or to tune out - the input of parents, teachers, students, business leaders and community members.

We need all those voices to create a system that will actually work for students and teachers. And this isn’t just about making people feel heard. The fact is, if we want robust and innovative accountability measures that really work, and that encompass more than test scores, we need to engage the people on the ground who educate students every day. If we really want to make a difference in the lives of students, we need to hear from them, and their parents, and the professionals who spend so many hours a week with them.

If states harness their power to listen and collaborate, rather than to shut down and shut out, then ESSA can bring about the changes our schools desperately need.

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that’s transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders. His latest book, written with colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, is Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave:

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has strong prospects for advancing equity and excellence in our nation’s public schools. Last December on the Senate floor, the bill’s principal Republican author Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) noted that ESSA would “fix the law that everybody wants fixed,” thus “restoring responsibility for our schools to states, communities and classroom teachers.”

But ESSA’s future impact is by no means certain.

First, what’s shifted with ESSA’s passage? The states are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to school accountability, closing the achievement gap, and determining which teachers are effective or not. The days of federally mandated, narrowly defined measures of student learning--and rigid approaches to turning around low-performing schools--could be over. States will decide how to define the accountability metrics, with measures to include proficiency and growth in academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and at least one other indicator of school quality (e.g., measures of safety, student engagement, educator engagement, etc.). ESSA allows states to develop dashboards of data that offer clear direction for constructive action. As Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, ESSA could support a renewed focus on access to a rich curriculum, productive school climate, and improved opportunities for students and their teachers to learn.

But policymakers continue to be pressured not to “turn away from testing” and a single rating system--with some suggesting that parents are not capable of understanding a more complex set of indicators. As of this writing (Fall 2016), federal regulations are still under development, and battle lines are being drawn between those who aim to retain high-stakes accountability (defined by the USDOE) and administrators and teachers who seek flexibility to meet students’ and communities’ needs.

There is no guarantee that ESSA will usher in a new day for teaching and learning. But here are three priorities for ESSA to achieve its promise:

1. Policymakers must grant states flexibility to use and weight multiple measures that determine school success.

The final federal regulations for ESSA must not require a single summative score--an approach that research has shown to lead to over-testing and the narrowing of the curriculum. Regulations must allow states flexibility in using and weighting multiple measures for the data dashboards used to determine school success. This could allow states to ensure that accountability drives improvement and builds capacity--not just a push for more test prep. Accountability for both equity and excellence should not just surface student outcome data--but inform policymakers, practitioners, and parents about what they must do next to improve student learning opportunities.

We see a promising example of how this could look in the CORE network of schools in California, which obtained a federal waiver from some NCLB provisions to create a new School Quality Improvement Index. The index includes much more than test scores and graduation rates--with measurements of school climate and culture, students’ social skills, and even their attitudes toward learning. ESSA could allow districts and states to develop and refine similar systems for truly actionable data on teaching and learning.

2. State leaders must seize the opportunity to develop teachers as leaders of performance assessment reforms.

ESSA, with its focus on a wider array of evidence of student learning, allows states to experiment through an Innovative Assessment pilot. The USDOE--under the leadership of Secretary of Education John King Jr.--suggests that the pilot can support schools to “reclaim the promise of a well-rounded education for every child while maintaining critical information for parents and educators.” But at the heart of an innovative assessment system are teachers who have the skill and agency to create, calibrate, and score formative assessments that can drive school improvement efforts and inform policymakers and parents about what is working and why. Researchers have shown how “formative assessment, when applied properly, helps to create a structured and rigorous learning environment that increases student achievement.”

It’s time for state leaders to capitalize on ESSA, using Title funds to develop teachers as leaders for much-needed performance assessment reforms. Other top-performing nations have supported teachers in this role for years--with phenomenal results. Here in the United States, promising work is already underway via the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) and SCALE at Stanford University. The Center for Teaching Quality has partnered with CCE and the Rhode Island Department of Education to design micro-credentials to develop and assess teachers’ skills in effectively leading student performance reforms. States can tap these tools--and virtual learning communities for educators--to spread teachers’ assessment expertise rapidly across schools and districts.

3. State and district leaders must overhaul professional learning systems.

ESSA clearly defines professional development as “sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” And as part of their ESSA plans, states must specify how their use of “Title funds” will improve teaching effectiveness through “personalized support and feedback for improvement.”

Wow. That could be a game-changer, right? But district and state leaders have substantial challenges to overcome in this area. After all, “personalized support” cannot take place when only seven percent of our nation’s teachers say that their schools have a strong collaboration model, as a recent Boston Consulting Group report revealed. According to the same study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, nearly one in five teachers (18 percent) never have a say in their professional development.

However, with ESSA, states can overhaul their approach to professional learning systems. They can create incentives for administrators to create conditions for teaching expertise to spread--including more time for teachers to engage in guided collaboration and lesson study (found readily in top-performing nations). In September 2016, the USDOE has issued guidance to the states that Title II, Part A funds may be used to support “time banks” or flexible time for collaborative planning, curriculum writing, peer observations -- those dollars “may be used to compensate teachers for their increased leadership roles and responsibilities.” I would suggest that with ESSA Title II professional development funds, states can make the most of the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials, fueled by Digital Promise, to recognize and reward classroom practitioners for leading their own learning and documenting their accomplishments.

For years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) advanced narrow and often inaccurate definitions of school and teacher effectiveness. But will ESSA revolutionize teaching and learning for the schools of tomorrow? Will the new federal education law prompt the creation of deeper learning opportunities for all students? Establish more sophisticated, accurate, and useful accountability measures? Build the demand for teacher leadership? Only if rulemaking sticks to the spirit of the law... and if state and district education leaders take action to make the most of the changed federal landscape.

Response From Morgan Polikoff

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education. He researches the design, implementation, and effects of standards, assessment, and accountability policies. His current research focuses on the implementation of Common Core and other college and career-ready standards in the classroom:

The three-word answer to “What practical impact do you think The Every Student Succeeds Act will really have in the classroom?” is “not very much.” The law still requires states to establish accountability systems to identify and intervene in struggling schools.

The sentence-length answer is “The impact will depend on how states design their accountability policies.” Because ESSA gives states much more authority to design accountability than No Child Left Behind did, we will likely see increased state-to-state variation in accountability policies and their impacts in the classroom. Here are some of the areas in which ESSA might have the most impact on actual school and classroom practices.

The first major change in ESSA is that, in most states, far fewer schools will be subject to accountability pressure than under No Child Left Behind. This means that many schools in the middle part of the performance distribution will have less incentive to pay attention to testing and accountability than before. This should reduce pressure on teachers in these schools.

Second, states will likely add measures to their accountability systems, which may encourage educators to focus on a wider array of outcomes. Most states under NCLB relied almost exclusively on math and English language arts scores, encouraging educators to narrowly focus on those subjects. Under ESSA, states will be more likely to include test results from other subjects, as well as non-test-based measures such as chronic absenteeism, student engagement, or social/emotional learning. Any of these kinds of changes should spread the accountability pressure more evenly throughout the school and diminish incentives to narrowly focus on mathematics and ELA test scores as the only outcomes that matter.

Third, states will likely make some specific changes to the way that performance is measured, which should also filter down to the classroom. For instance, many states will put at least some emphasis on student achievement growth, instead of just proficiency status. Under NCLB, the narrow focus on proficiency status encouraged educators to focus on students near the proficiency cut score, because these were the students whose performance “mattered” most. A focus on growth encourages educators to target all students, because raising achievement counts just as much regardless of whose achievement is raised.

Finally, because ESSA puts so many boxes around the Department of Education, I would expect less pressure on states to continue working on teacher evaluation systems. This means that many states will at least partially roll back the politically contentious evaluation laws they passed under the NCLB waivers. This should also reduce testing pressure, since many states added tests in non-tested subjects to meet the requirements of new teacher evaluation policies.

Overall, I think these changes are likely to be a mixed bag. The decrease in accountability pressure will be a welcome relief to many educators, though it is not clear to me that this change will lead to better outcomes for kids. And the increase in the diversity of accountability measures will mean a broader focus than just test scores, though we don’t know as much about the long-term effects of these measures. Regardless, my hope at least is that educators see the value of new accountability systems and respond in productive ways to them.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards. He also provides consultation on the development, implementation, and compliance of academic programs funded under policies and provisions the Every Students Succeeds Act (n.e. the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965):

The problem historically with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and all its reauthorizations, including No Child Left Behind and now the Every Students Succeeds Act, have been a lack of knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what exactly the policies and provisions of the act provide.

All educators need to ask what is the intent and purpose of titles of the ESSA, how it expands upon the original act, and what distinguishes it from NCLB. Teachers and administrators should ask their state and district officials how they can use Title I, Part A funding effectively and efficiently to implement a comprehensive school reform model that will strengthen their education program, set up a multi-tiered system of support that will allot extended learning time to students to increase and improve academic achievement, and provide academic interventions to struggling students. They should also investigate innovative and effective ways how they can use their Title II funds to receive high quality professional development either at their site or by attending education conferences and trainings. They should also become familiar with how Title III supports the learning of English learners and how they can use that funding not only to strengthen their academic program but also their skill-set in meeting both the academic and language needs of this unique group of students. They should also read the policies and provisions of both the ESEA and ESSA to verify whether the answers they are receiving from the state and district administrators are clear and correct. Only then will the ESSA truly have a practical and even effective impact on the classroom.

Response From Jacki Gran

Jackie Gran is the Chief Policy and Evaluation Officer at New Leaders. She oversees New Leaders’ efforts to evaluate and learn from our programmatic work, and to use these lessons to inform federal and state school leadership policy:

The past sixteen years have made it clear that federal education law does in fact have a significant impact on what happens in classrooms. Ideally, curriculum and instruction are mapped backwards from desired learning goals. If these goals are narrowly defined as proficiency on poorly designed tests -- as they were in many schools during a decade of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- classroom practice suffers.

While important progress -- specifically in math* -- was made under NCLB, there were also negative consequences. For example, using state test proficiency as the sole measure for evaluating schools meant many schools squeezed out key subjects like history and the arts to focus intensively on math and reading skills. Meanwhile, schools making significant progress with students arriving far behind were labeled failing because accountability systems did not value growth in addition to absolute proficiency.

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has the potential to reverse these negative trends, especially if states get two things right: leadership and accountability.

ESSA places far greater focus on leadership. States will soon develop plans detailing strategies to strengthen the preparation, support, and development of principals and other school leaders, with several federal funding streams now available to support leadership development.

As teachers know, everything that happens in schools and classrooms -- setting high expectations, implementing a rich, standards-aligned curriculum, establishing systems and structures that enable teachers to collaborate in planning challenging, engaging lessons, and to grow and improve their practice -- is influenced by the caliber of our nation’s school leaders. In fact, some of the unintended consequences of NCLB are arguably related to the reality that many principals were not prepared with the skills and knowledge they needed to respond meaningfully to the law’s requirements and support educators in transitioning to new expectations and more stringent accountability.

Although NCLB’s accountability framework had flaws, we know strong school leaders take accountability seriously: they want to be held responsible for their results. As New Leader Aqueelha James, who advocated to maintain annual federal assessment requirements under ESSA, explained: “Assessment data shine a spotlight on inequities and help me advocate for my kids and my school community. They allow me to talk to teachers, students, and parents about areas of improvement and to celebrate our successes.”

Like James, many of the New Leader principals who serve on our alumni policy advisory committee -- who have led notable achievement gains in high-poverty schools -- value accountability, but express concern that previous systems did not adequately incentivize, recognize, and reward progress. This includes a primary focus on academic progress, but also important measures related to school culture, climate, and safety that are essential preconditions for academic growth. And they stress the critical importance of having good assessments that set a high bar for achievement and truly measure the skills and knowledge needed for future success. ESSA’s new provisions set the stage for states to address these concerns; however, they must include the right accountability measures, and take important steps to ensure a meaningful focus on effective leadership.

The simple fact is that even the most thoughtfully crafted laws are only as strong as their implementation. School leaders play the central role in bringing these laws to life in schools and classrooms. States that embrace this truth -- and make meaningful and wise investments in teacher, school, and district leadership -- will see measurable improvements in classroom practice and student success.

*For example, see //www.nber.org/papers/w15531; //www.nber.org/papers/w20511; //www.nber.org/papers/w16745

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Randi, Barnett, Morgan, Erik and Jacki for their contributions!

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