ESSA Progress Report: How the New Law Is Moving From Policy to Practice

—Michael Glenwood
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The Every Student Succeeds Act becomes a working reality in district central offices and schools this fall. But it's unclear if the law, which passed in a haze of rare bipartisanship more than two years ago, will live up to its promise.

ESSA allows states—rather than the federal government—to ride herd on accountability, school improvement, and teacher quality, while requiring them to maintain key protections for vulnerable groups of students, such as minorities, English-learners, and those with disabilities.

But already, clashes are occurring at the state and federal levels over the right balance between those two priorities, on issues such as calculating school grades.

And although state leaders have hailed the flexibility in ESSA when it comes to setting their own course on key aspects of accountability, some critics argue they aren't doing enough to take advantage of it.

So what are the big questions facing ESSA as it moves out of the realm of congressional language and into the world of day-to-day schooling? Here's a quick rundown from our progress report on the nation's main federal education law:

First things first: What's the state of play on the law?

Every state has submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Education for turning issues from theory to practice. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved 37 state plans, plus those for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Her team has given feedback critiques to every state.

States are scheduled to begin identifying their lowest-performing schools and those in which less than two-thirds of students graduate at the end of this school year. Those schools will be subject to intensive, evidence-based interventions designed by their district to turn them around. States are slated to begin flagging schools where vulnerable groups of students are struggling for so-called "targeted" support beginning in 2019-20. Schools themselves will come up with evidence-based plans to fix their problems, monitored by the district.

The school identifications will bring the reality of ESSA home to districts, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at the consulting organization Bellwether Education Partners, which helped lead a review of all 50 state plans, plus the District of Columbia's.

"Most people still don't know what ESSA is," Aldeman said. "What's going to happen later this summer is that states will release lists, and all of the fights we've seen in Washington will start being salient for the rest of the country."

How has the process of ESSA plan approval played out politically?

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The bipartisan warmth that enveloped ESSA's passage is long gone. Last year, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ESSA architect, led the effort to scrap the Obama administration's accountability regulations for the law. Alexander argued that the rules amounted to federal overreach. But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who worked with Alexander to write the law, vehemently objected to the move.

DeVos' team, meanwhile, intially got pushback from Alexander for going overboard in its approach to state plan review.

Since then, DeVos and company appear to have gone in the other direction, approving some plans even if states didn't make changes the department specifically sought. In fact, Murray and Scott have said that DeVos is rubber-stamping plans that don't embrace ESSA's protections for vulnerable groups of students. DeVos, though, says she is "only approving plans that comport with the law."

But that doesn't mean that DeVos thinks that all the ESSA plans are of high quality.

"Let me be clear: Just because a plan complies with the law doesn't mean it does what's best for students," DeVos told the Council of Chief State School Officers last month.

How do vulnerable groups of students fare under the ESSA plans?

This is a big area of debate. Advocates for state leaders say they understand the need to look out for all students. But civil rights organizations worry that states aren't holding schools accountable for the progress of subgroups of students, such as English-language learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students in special education, and children living in poverty.

Some states are basing school ratings—such as A-F grades or numeric scores—on a school's overall performance, instead of considering the achievement of individual subgroups of students, said Natasha Ushomirsky, the director of P-12 Policy Development at the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization. That might mean a school could get an A even if, say, English-learners are falling behind their peers.

To be sure, ESSA requires states to flag schools with iffy subgroup performance for so-called "targeted" support. But Ushomirsky isn't sure that's going to be a clear enough signal for parents and the public.

"Once you have given a school an A, the school doesn't care very much about being identified for targeted support," she said.

Carissa Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said states are working to make sure the performance of all students matters.

"Subgroup performance is critical and important, and we believe that it should be in there," she said. States will continue to evaluate and improve their plans, she added.

How much policy change has ESSA brought?

ESSA gives states and districts new room to maneuver on teacher quality, school turnarounds, testing, and accountability. Some have used the flexibility to make big policy changes; others are moving cautiously.

For example, under the Obama administration's waivers for the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA's predecessor, states had to embrace teacher evaluation through test scores. But ESSA prohibits the federal government from telling states how to handle educator-performance reviews. Six states have used the flexibility to ditch the requirement for basing evaluations on student-test scores, including Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

By contrast, only Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico submitted applications by the April 2 deadline for ESSA's Innovative Assessment pilot, which allows states to try out new forms of testing in select districts before taking them statewide. And only two states—North Dakota and Oklahoma—are ready to move on the chance to offer districts the option of using a nationally recognized college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, in lieu of the state test.

ESSA also tries to give districts increased flexibility over their federal funding. But only two states—Louisiana and New Mexico—are planning to take advantage of the new opportunity to set aside up to 3 percent of their Title I funding, which generally targets disadvantaged students, for direct student services, such as tutoring and dual enrollment.

In her speech at the CCSSO last month, DeVos chided states for failing to take advantage of new flexibilities in the law, including the testing pilot.

"Don't you think it's time to do something different? To try something new that enhances student achievement?" she said.

But Reg Leichty, a founding partner at Foresight Law + Policy, a law firm that works on ESSA implementation, said it could be easier for states to think through those opportunities without the pressure of putting together a plan with significant input from the education community.

Are states using the new law to try out new approaches to learning and accountability?

Two years after ESSA's passage, experts who have reviewed state plans don't see much outside-the-box thinking.

"I thought more states would run with the flexibility [in the law] to embed their priorities in ESSA," said Aldeman of Bellwether, suggesting states might have wanted to go big on STEM—short for science, technology, engineering, and math—early-childhood education, school choice, literacy, or improving school and district leadership. "There's no theory of action in most of these plans."

But Miller of the CCSSO said states are coming up with smart ways to meet challenges they've identified. Oklahoma, she said, wants to consider child nutrition in intervening in low-performing schools. Connecticut will be judging schools' performance in part on access to arts classes. Still, some district superintendents say they don't see as much of a difference as they'd like between ESSA and the previous version of the federal K-12 law, the NCLB Act.

Todd English, the superintendent of the Booneville school district in northeast Mississippi, said that ESSA continues to force a "one-size-fits-all" regimen because states must come up with one accountability system for all districts, instead of accommodating for the differences between a big urban district and a small, rural one.

"It's really false flexibility if the whole state has to do the same thing," English said.

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Shari Camhi, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Baldwin school district on New York state's Long Island, said state officials did a good job reaching out to district leaders in developing the ESSA plan. But she's not sure the new law will allow for truly new forms of instruction.

ESSA, she noted, still requires districts to test students in reading and math annually, Those tests, she said, don't make the connection between content knowledge and real-world problems.

"Do we evaluate employee performance in a separate location and with an isolated measure?," Camhi said. "No, we are given projects that need to be completed and we complete them with all the skills necessary to finalize the job. Why wouldn't we evaluate student performance the same way? Yes, it's hard, but anything worth doing is hard, isn't it?"

Vol. 37, Issue 25, Pages 5-6

Published in Print: April 4, 2018, as As ESSA Takes Flight, States and Districts Navigate a Complex Course on K-12 Policy
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