Colorado Officials Hit the Road to Gather Views on ESSA
Under the now-replaced No Child Left Behind Act, the Colorado education department pumped in millions of state and federal dollars to improve the Pueblo public schools, almost half of which the state deems failing.
The test scores barely budged over the past several years.
So when a handful of department officials trooped down to this southeastern part of the state last week to ask community members what changes to the state's accountability system they'd like to see under NCLB's replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, district Superintendent Constance A. Jones was ready for her turn at the microphone.
"I see this as a golden opportunity to rethink our entire accountability system," she said. Speaking from a torn-out sheet of notebook paper, Jones cited a long list of complaints: The department has become too heavy-handed. Its labeling of schools is demoralizing. Its standards are inconsistent.
This is a taste of what state education officials nationwide may hear this spring as they ask parents, teachers, district leaders, and lawmakers to help them design their revamped accountability plans under ESSA, which eventually will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
ESSA, the latest version of the nation's main K-12 law, gives states much more authority to design their own school-accountability and teacher-evaluation systems, among other policies. To do that—and to avoid blind-siding local officials and community residents —state education departments are convening task forces, conducting online surveys, and holding town hall meetings, sometimes in far-flung corners of their states.
"From the front end, departments need to be clear about their intentions," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has released a white paper to help departments frame discussion points and strategize ways to engage hard-to-reach groups, such as low-income and minority parents.
"The broadness of this conversation is critical," he said. "The more transparent we can be about the decisionmaking process, the better."
Lessons From Common Core
It's not easy. The education debate has been especially volatile in recent years, with teachers' unions at loggerheads with administrators over evaluations, and parents frustrated about what they see as too much testing.
State departments are still dealing with the political backlash from the Common Core State Standards, which teachers and parents complained their states had adopted and put into effect without enough discussion with them.
"Without community input, it just makes it incredibly hard to get any implementation with fidelity," said Kathy Cox, a former state superintendent of Georgia and the CEO of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, which consults with education departments. "Even if people don't always agree with what the state policy or what the decision is, if they feel like they've been well informed and that there's been a very good reflective process on why a decision is being made, people will come around."
This month alone, education officials of states such as Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are holding ESSA town hall meetings.
"We're going to task thousands of people to help us develop this plan," said Stephen Pruitt, the education commissioner of Kentucky, who just wrapped up a statewide tour. "I want as many people getting their eyes on our ESSA plan as possible."
The risks of failing to get buy-in from the public are high, as illustrated by Colorado's experience with the common-core rollout. Last year, more than 65,000 students opted out of the state's exams to protest the standards and what many in the public perceived as overtesting.
"It was a nightmare," said Martha Nogare, the principal of Pueblo West High School, who spent the last two months meeting with parents to explain what the common core is and how the aligned tests can be beneficial. While more than 150 of her school's students opted out of the tests last year, just a dozen opted out this year, a sharp drop she attributes to the local outreach effort.
"The state didn't do its part in communicating to parents what in the world is common core," Nogare said. "They were just saying it's a good thing, so there was this mystery around the whole thing."
From the district level on up, Colorado education officials are viewing ESSA as a chance for a new start with greater partnership and communication.
"ESSA puts the onus back on states to say, 'What are you going to do to help these districts, these schools?' " said Richard Crandall, the Colorado commissioner of education. "The listening tour is us saying, 'Hey, guys, we have some flexibility and a lot of responsibility. Let's do this together. This is not going to be a top-down decision. What in the areas of accountability and turnaround would you like to see? Let's have a conversation.' "
After the state department devises its accountability plan in the fall, officials will likely revisit cities to get further feedback. The governor and state lawmakers will also get a chance to look the plan over.
The state's teachers' union, school boards' association, and administrators' organization also are planning a summit in June to gather more opinions and ideas.
Drawing a Crowd
In preparation for their seven-city listening tour, which wraps up next month, state education officials placed ads in local newspapers, posted fliers on community boards, and sent emails to parents' online discussion groups.
The first two sessions took place in Pueblo on May 4 at the city's history museum, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. The audience, around 80 people between the two meetings, was made up mostly of administrators and teachers. Only two parents were registered.
The school district for four years straight has languished at the bottom of the Colorado's accountability system, designed five years ago as part of a federal waiver to the state that eased provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. A multimillion-dollar effort to bring in consultants to help the district improve schools didn't bring much success, and morale sank, administrators here say. Compounding the district's academic problems are a drug epidemic and a high unemployment rate.
A more recent effort to give schools additional flexibility, under state laws, to provide tutoring, extra hours of instruction, and more professional development has shown promising results, and Pueblo's superintendent plans to ask the state to expand those efforts this summer.
Seizing an Opportunity
For many educators in the district, the Every Student Succeeds Act is an opportunity to reconfigure the way struggling schools are labeled and supported by the state.
"We have to look at the core values of this state and really look at a more comprehensive system," said Jones, the Pueblo superintendent. "Once we settle on a plan, it's going to be difficult to modify it."
Over chocolate cupcakes, sugar cookies, and pepperoni pizza at the meeting, Patrick Chapman, the executive director of the state education department's federal-programs unit, described the elements of ESSA using a PowerPoint presentation.
The state is bound by its own statutes when it comes to standards, the amount of testing schools can conduct, and courses that must be offered, Chapman said. But ESSA gives the state flexibility to determine how to distribute some federal money and come up with new ways to evaluate schools, he said, and local districts can devise their own ways to turn around schools.
In small-group discussions, department officials took notes as administrators and teachers discussed the city's long list of problems.
Among the complaints: that federal money was being distributed haphazardly and unevenly; that intervention efforts didn't include local input; and that the accountability system didn't consider the role poverty played in the district.
"I think they've listened. I don't think their actions reflect that, though," said Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, about the department. The teachers' union is affiliated with the National Education Association.
Crandall, the state schools chief, who didn't attend the Pueblo event, said state officials are open to hearing other ideas on how to intervene in the worst-performing districts.
"Everybody has a strong opinion about education and what they want," said Crandall. "The ideas are as diverse as the stars in the sky."
Vol. 35, Issue 30, Pages 1, 20-21Published in Print: May 11, 2016, as As ESSA Rolls Out, State Officials Vow to Hear Local Voices