Hard Listening as States Seek Public's Voice in ESSA Plans
Those with a stake in their local schools watch closely to see if their views are being taken seriously as the new law goes into effect.
Education officials have spent the last few months crisscrossing their states for town hall meetings and listening tours to hear what parents, teachers, and others want to see in new education plans states must submit to the federal government this year under the new federal K-12 education law.
Now that many states are inking their first drafts, questions remain: Did the feedback from principals, community advocates, teachers, and others matter? To what degree will they be included in the final documents? And did state education officials do enough to get the perspectives of the variety of stakeholders required by the Every Student Succeeds Act?
The short answer: It depends on the state, how one defines "meaningful" engagement, and what the objectives were when the state embarked on its stakeholder engagement process—whether it planned to dream big or tinker around the edges of its current system.
The majority of states are still collecting information through online surveys and in-person forums, although a few have published drafts of their plans and are into their second round of public comments.
District superintendents have generally been favorable toward state outreach efforts. Many sit on advisory committees and discussion groups the departments have set up. But the tight time frame in which states were trying to craft their ESSA plans while simultaneously waiting on federal regulations was a concern for some, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. (The plans were initially due to the federal education department in March or July 2017, but the department released new regulations on Nov. 28 that pushed the submission dates to April or September.)
Others worried that some states appeared to have predetermined what would be in the new plans, Ellerson Ng said.
Narrow Planning Window
Dan Shelton, the superintendent of the Capital school district in Dover, Del., who is in one of the state's discussion groups, said there was certainly more stakeholder engagement during the ESSA planning process in his state than in the lead-up to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the narrow window to complete the plan and the state's focus on "key areas" could curtail officials' ability to delve deep enough to make significant changes.
"What we are focusing on are the obvious places that there will be disagreements," Shelton said. "We are talking about our success framework. We are talking about 'n-sizes.' We are talking about what we measure. ... It's not that we're not talking about the things [that matter]. The question is, are there other things that we are missing because we are focused on a couple of really hot topics?"
And while teachers were members of many discussion groups across the country, the American Federation of Teachers said it had to work harder in some states than others to ensure that teacher and parent input were reflected in the process. Randi Weingarten, the union's president, said Ohio was one such state where advocates had to put in extra effort to ensure that parents and teachers were heard.
Weingarten said that "meaningful" stakeholder engagement went beyond just holding meetings. It was also about ensuring that concerns—whether related to teacher evaluations, art and music education, social-emotional learning, and assessments—were respected and addressed.
In responses to an open-ended survey question, teachers and district leaders shared the advice they would like to give their states regarding the development of plans for ESSA implementation. Both teachers (27%) and districts leaders (22%) most often said they want their states to limit or modify testing and its role in evaluating students or teachers.
"It doesn't mean that everything we say should be gospel," she said, "but it means that there is a real give and take."
A spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Department did not specifically respond to the complaint, but said the state conducted "massive" stakeholder outreach that included meetings across the state, online surveys, and webinars. Many educators and parents participated in the online surveys and attended the 10 community stakeholder meetings the state hosted. The department also regularly meets with parents and educators' associations and discusses ESSA in those sessions, she said.
The National Parent Teacher Association sought to have a designated parent serving on ESSA committees, and, in the cases where that did not happen, it urged local affiliates to contact state education officials directly or work with their districts to ensure their voices were heard. The group also considered whether information about the law and how parents could be involved was easy to find, available in several languages, and easy to understand, and whether there were multiple opportunities for parents to provide input. It also looked at whether summaries of the feedback sessions were available online for those who could not attend the meetings.
Jacki Ball, the group's director of government affairs, gave a simple example of one way that South Carolina sought input from parents through a short online form that asked parents and students, among other things, "What do you wish was different about your school or our school system?"
"That's very basic, but, at the same time, it provides very good information for the department of education about what a parent would look for in their child's school," Ball said.
One particular hurdle, especially in engaging English-language-learner parents, is that some states do not have a track record of working collaboratively with the community. On the flip side, some English-learner parents were asked to dive headfirst—for the first time in many cases—into a rather complex topic, said Maria Moser, the senior director of teaching and learning at the National Council of La Raza.
"We are trying to build a bridge between two sides, and there are pieces that are missing on both ends," Moser said.
To their credit, state education officials have been willing to speak at meetings organized by the group's affiliates, Moser said, but,"I would say that it hasn't been a strategic effort in those places."
An example of such collaboration is in Tennessee, where the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups and civic organizations, has met separately with state education staff to discuss their concerns about equity, state intervention in struggling schools, and parent and community engagement. But the group was also able to help the state in an area where it needed assistance: It facilitated several meetings with Spanish-speaking parents and state education officials.
In some cases, advocates are still finding that nearly a year after the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed and months into the stakeholder-engagement process, many parents still do not have a grasp of even the most basic components of the law. That, advocates say, calls into question not just the efficacy of the states' education and outreach efforts but also the quality of the feedback that parents and other stakeholders can provide if they do not know how the law could alter K-12 education and the new opportunities it provides for local districts.
Still, states more often than not made an effort to reach out to stakeholders.
In Georgia, where the Common Core State Standards were adopted without much input and were greeted by a loud backlash, State School Superintendent Richard Woods said the ESSA engagement process was about building relationships and communicating priorities.
Among its efforts, the state created seven committees with representatives from various stakeholder groups, that included parents, representatives from the charter sector, the civil rights community, principals, and superintendents. The department held eight public forums between August and November, in which the public had the opportunity to join the discussions and ask questions. Students also had the chance to weigh in.
"They were very forward-thinking," Woods said of the students, who offered insights about school climate and the burdens of poverty on education. "Sometimes we don't necessarily take those things into consideration, but it's always good to … sit down and listen to those we serve."
The outreach does not stop once the ink on the plan dries, Woods said.
"We don't want them to feel that they came, showed up, and nothing was done," he said. "We definitely want to maintain that level of communication, but also let them know … your work is not done, this is just the beginning, and we expect and hope that you'd be part of the process."
Georgia educators who served on the working committees said that it was important for states to solicit and include the opinions and expertise of individuals who work in schools and who will be charged with shepherding the plans into reality.
Philip D. Lanoue, the superintendent of the Clarke County school system in Athens, Ga., and the 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year, said he appreciated the state's process, but worried that the efforts may not go far enough to reshape accountability and assessments.
"That's my concern. That we ask the question, 'Are we assessing what kids are really going to need to be successful in their world, not our world?' " said Lanoue, a critic of high-stakes testing.
Washington, another state that has gotten plaudits for its stakeholder engagement efforts, convened 12 working committees that tackled topics such as teaching and learning, early-childhood education, assessments, students with disabilities, and parent and community engagement. These committees also reported to an overall ESSA Consolidated Plan Team, which included members of the state legislature, ethnic commissions, the Tribal Leaders Congress, and the principals' and administrators' associations.
The department also solicited views online, held listening sessions across the state, and offered to pay for transportation and accommodations for parents who served on the working groups. What emerged from the nearly 10-month process was a draft plan that reflected the wishes of the stakeholders, said Gil Mendoza, the deputy superintendent for K-12 education, who is leading the ESSA stakeholder engagement process. As examples, he cited policies related to English-learners, migrant students, and early-childhood education.
The focus on student growth and not just performance on state tests also came directly from that input, Mendoza said. The state so far has settled on chronic absenteeism, 9th graders on track to graduate, and dual-credit enrollment as part of the school quality and student success indicators in its ESSA accountability plan. But some members of the community also wanted to add industry certification for career and technical education. The state plans to add industry certification in the second year, after conducting more research, he said.
'A Living Document'
"This is a living document," Mendoza said. "We are going to need to reach out again and say, 'Help us look at best practices that are going to work for you,' because we not the ones implementing it. Local districts are implementing it."
Parents and teachers who took part say they are happy they did, though the impact is still unclear.
Kevin Ohlandt, a parent of a special-needs child in Delaware and author of an education blog, got the opportunity to discuss scaling back standardized tests and moving to a weighted student funding formula that would provide additional money to districts based on students' needs.
"I loved getting my voice out there and pushing for certain issues," he said. "I have a suspicion that, at the end of the day, it's going to be done in a certain way that will—how do I put it?—benefit corporations more than students."
On the other end, Heather Byington, a National Board-certified teacher in the area of English as a new language and a teacher for nearly 18 years in Washington state, already has tangible results to show for her participation.
Byington served on a committee on English-language learners, which reviewed current policies related to English-learners and opportunities under ESSA to do things differently.
Some of the group's suggestions, including that the state allow districts to assess students in their native languages to the fullest extent possible and increase the amount of money available for immigrant students, were approved by Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and are part of the state's draft plan that is now subject to public comment.
Vol. 36, Issue 16, Pages 10-13Published in Print: January 4, 2017, as Hard Listening As States Seek Public's Voice In ESSA Plans