States Working to Engage Public as They Craft ESSA Plans

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In their efforts to write comprehensive, feasible—and politically saleable—plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, state education agencies across the country are assembling massive task forces, stacked with parents, educators, scholars, and politicians.

The composition, discussion points, and activities of these task forces, some of which are now meeting weekly, will be crucial in the coming months as they work to determine how to transform their states' school accountability systems, boost teacher quality, and improve classroom learning.

But department officials are wrestling to find the right balance between involving enough stakeholders so they're not accused of operating in secret and avoiding a process so monstrous that it collapses of its own weight.

Unlike the deadlines they faced to adopt the Common Core State Standards or write their applications for federal Race to the Top grants, state departments have more than an entire year to write their ESSA proposals, which will likely be due sometime next spring and implemented in the fall of 2017.

And they have a wider array of options for what will go into those plans under ESSA, which, in many areas, hands the majority of policymaking decisions over to state officials.

Gone are the days of 30- to 60-day review periods where applications were posted on hard-to-find websites and voted on by state board members at sparsely-attended meetings.

Building Consensus

Michigan’s education department has among the nation’s most elaborate plans for public involvement in crafting its state accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act. More than 350 people are involved in drafting proposals that will be submitted to the legislature and governor for approval. The plan has many moving parts:

Action Teams: Parents, teachers, subject-matter experts, and department officials charged with coming up with a plan in areas including teacher quality, school accountability, and use of data.

Tactical Team: Made up of department officials; coordinates the overall process.

External Advisory Committee: Includes legislators, representatives from the governor’s office, higher education, the business community, and state advocacy organizations.

Internal ESSA Leadership Team: Consists of state Superintendent Brian Whiston and his cabinet; reviews action teams’ plans along with the external advisory committee.

Process: Action teams submit drafts to both the Internal Leadership Team and the external advisory committee, and the state education department will give feedback.

Approval: The plan will be submitted to the governor’s office this winter for its approval, then submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for final approval.

In recent months, state departments have conjured up elaborate decision making processes, complete with listening tours, checks and balances, political vetting, and panels that ultimately involve hundreds of people. Meetings are livestreamed with the minutes shared on social media sites. Ideas are posted in teachers' lounges, presented by department officials at union meetings, and debated during city hall meetings.

Casting a Wide Net

The more people, the better, state departments and their consultants say. Montana's education department has appointed a group of 38 external advisory members that represent a variety of advocacy groups across the state.

Michigan has more than 350 people involved in an eight-month process in which action groups send plans for approval to advisory committees, which then submit those plans to government officials.

Pennsylvania has more than 200 people separated into large- and small-group steering committees designated with specific tasks.

"We're ramping up the amount of meaningful consultation and making it more widespread to include a broader stakeholder group," said Matthew Stem, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.

But, ultimately, tough decisions have to be made.

Controlling the months-long process to assure productive discussions, transparent decisions, and to make people feel involved is not easy. And someone is likely to feel left out. Advocacy groups already are closely watching.

Having so many people involved is a slippery slope, said William Robinson, executive director of leadership for the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia. "If the questions are too open-ended, if the stated purpose is just for people to be listened to, then ultimately, the solution is less likely to serve the stakeholders and communities involved," said Robinson.

State department officials have described challenges of communication and time-management, and making sure task forces include a wide array of voices. The groups shouldn't be so small that policy debates are bifurcated, or so big that they're unwieldy.

"I don't think there's any one specific way to do this," said Carissa Moffat Miller, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It's not just an email to a group of people and saying, 'What do you think? ' or hosting a meeting in the state capitol where you have people come in for a couple hours and say that's it. You have to work with stakeholders in their communities."

Department officials are aware that the more widespread the input they get, the more impact and support their plan will have.

But they're also being prodded along by both the law—ESSA specifies a certain amount of input from parents, the public and lawmakers—and U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. who, in a series of speeches across the country, has pushed state departments to engage with minority groups.

"The civil rights organizations need to be at the table until the very end," King said during a recent address to state policymakers in Washington, D.C.

In May, a group of top Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education encouraging it to help state departments place teacher and minority-parent advocacy groups at the table.

Republicans currently hold the majority of states' legislative seats, and the majority of the country's governors are Republican.

While some departments are only looking to make tweaks to their education policies, others seek to start from scratch, widening accountability systems to target new school success measures, reducing or picking new assessments, and altering teacher evaluations and qualifications.

Seeking Diversity

That means getting people on task forces who can sit through hours of wonky policy debates, but also understand what sort of impact their policies will have in the classroom.

Several states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, have set up extensive application processes and vetted people for their expertise, experiences, and the amount of time they can dedicate.

"They need to have existing knowledge so that they can jump right in and think about recommended changes," Stem said.

Those sorts of qualifiers could have a paradoxical effect. Set the bar too high and departments run the risk of limiting the scope of who can serve on a committee, and some groups will be left out in the cold.

While Michigan got hundreds of people to apply to serve on one of six ESSA action committees, only a smattering of parents applied.

"Many parents don't know what an ESSA plan is, and they don't easily see how it reflects what they see at their child's school," said Venessa Keesler, Michigan's deputy superintendent for educator, student, and school support. "We don't do a good enough job at explaining, 'Here's how it will be for your child.'"

Michigan officials have since put a lot of the discussion points on web forums to engage parents. According to the Collaborative for Student Success, which tracks states' progress in writing their ESSA plans, several states are continuing their listening tours throughout this summer, while others already have begun having task forces meet.

A review of minutes from ESSA task forces that have started shows that meetings are full of PowerPoint presentations explaining what ESSA is, its components, federal requirements, and the group's charge. Some meetings are introduced with long presentations on what state systems now look like. Task force members then comb through feedback officials collected during statewide listening tours.

Pennsylvania hired the CCSSO to moderate its discussions so as not to squash the free flow of ideas during the meetings.

"We are ensuring that by removing the department, we are providing a safer environment for a variety of viewpoints," Stem said.

And the task forces' proposals have to be reviewed for how well they can pass political muster and be implemented by the department.

That means either posting minutes on their websites or making the meetings public and shopping drafts around to the community.

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Many are shooting to have their plans completed by the end of the year so that they can be considered by legislators next spring.

Even after their ESSA plans are submitted to the federal department, Miller from the CCSSO encouraged states to keep the discussions going.

"In a perfect world, you don't just get feedback, step back, and implement," Miller said. "You're in it for the long haul. It's the standing engagement along the way as it's being implemented that also matters. Without that feedback, we risk living in a vacuum where we're not improving the process that would transcend education for all kids."

Vol. 35, Issue 37, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as Crafting ESSA Plans a State Balancing Act
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