States, Districts Tackle the Tough Work of Making ESSA a Reality

—Getty/Education Week

A check-in shows states and districts mostly using the law’s flexibility to make incremental changes in policy

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The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with bipartisan fanfare in 2015, has been the law of the land for more than three years. But for states and school districts, some of the most important work—including putting out more transparent school report cards and figuring out how to fix low-performing schools—is just beginning.

The changes brought by ESSA are subtle and not easy to see, said Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Implementation isn't one of those things that's headline-grabbing," she said. "It's really hard work to put things in place. It's really hard to explain to people what's different here."

So what are the big questions facing ESSA as it rolls out in school districts around the country? Here's a check-in on the nation's main K-12 education law:

Where does implementation of ESSA stand?

ESSA has been in full swing for some time at the U.S. Department of Education and state education agencies. But many schools haven't seen a huge impact from it yet.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved every state's plan to implement the law. The majority of states have flagged their lowest-performing schools and high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate for what the law calls "comprehensive school improvement," using data from the 2017-18 school year. In many states, districts are submitting plans to fix those schools. Those plans must be approved by the state.

"We're going from identifying low-performing schools to trying to do something about it," said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. "But the action is still largely on paper, it's still sort of planning phase in many respects. … From a child's perspective, implementation has barely begun."

Later this year, states will begin identifying schools for what the law calls "additional targeted support and improvement." These are schools that might look fine—even really good—overall, but where at least one subgroup of students, such as English-language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, or poor children, is performing as poorly as the students in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools, which have large percentages of low-income students.

States also have to annually issue updated report cards, which will include new school-by-school spending data that will help show whether schools that are spending similar amounts of money are getting similar academic results.

Meanwhile, governors and state chiefs who came to power after the 2018 election are itching to make changes to their plans. Case in point: New Mexico's new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, wants to rework key parts of the ESSA plan put in place by her predecessor, GOP Gov. Susana Martinez. Those include teacher evaluation, school ratings, school improvement, testing, and more. Indiana, Michigan, and other states are also mulling tweaks to their ESSA plans.

ESSA was supposed to bring about bold new thinking at the state level. So did it?

When ESSA passed at the end of 2015, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the bill's main architects, predicted that it would unleash a "flood of innovation" in states and districts across the country.

More than three years later, Chad Aldeman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization, said he's not seeing it.

"In terms of actual accountability or consequences for schools, I think we're seeing the absence of a flood of innovation," said Aldeman, who led a 50-state review of ESSA plans. "I'm seeing a desert."

The CCSSO's Miller, though, said states are embracing new strategies and initiatives driven by the law. It's just not always eye-popping work. She cited Ohio's focus on continuous improvement for all its schools, not just the lowest performers. And she noted that Illinois has put in place "IL-Empower," which helps districts and schools find improvement partners.

But few states and districts have taken the department up on some of the new flexibilities ESSA offers. Only two so far—Louisiana and New Hampshire—have been approved for the law's Innovative Assessment pilot, which allows states to try out new forms of testing in a handful of districts before taking them statewide. Two others—Georgia and North Carolina—have applied for the program. Up to seven states can participate in the pilot, at least initially.

And just half a dozen districts want to participate in the law's "weighted student funding" pilot, even though up to 50 districts could take advantage of it. That pilot allows districts to combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, children in poverty, students in special education—in short, students who cost more to educate—carry with them more money than other students.

In theory, adopting a weighted student-funding formula could make it easier and more attractive for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools. But most of the districts that applied to participate in the pilot aren't planning to use the flexibility that way.

That's not to say there have been no changes at all. One of the biggest: States are now measuring factors that get at school quality and student success alongside test scores. More than thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, for example, are looking at chronic absenteeism or attendance as one of those school quality indicators, according to the nonprofit Attendance Works. And more than 40 states are looking at college-and-career readiness.

Districts also got new funding flexibility under the law through a new program, the Student Success and Academic Enrichment Grants, better known as Title IV. The program was funded at $1.1 billion in the 2018-19 school year. Districts can use the money for the arts, health, safety, foreign language, college-and-career-ready coursework, and more. Districts could also choose to shift the funding to Title II, the part of the law that deals with teacher training, or Title I, which deals with disadvantaged students.

Not many districts went with the transfer option, according to a survey conducted last year by the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators and Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting organization. For the most part, districts chose to spend money on social-emotional learning, STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—courses, and professional development, according to the survey. Also high on the list: school safety.

Notably, however, the Trump administration has proposed eliminating funding for the Title IV program in its latest budget.

What approach has the U.S. Department of Education taken to ESSA implementation?

The department hasn't issued much guidance for states on the new law, preferring instead to develop materials to help parents better understand ESSA, including a guide specifically for families, released last fall.

"Instead of 'Dear Colleague' letters, I much prefer 'Dear Parent' letters," U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told the National School Boards Association earlier this year, according to prepared remarks. "I encourage you to lead within your state. Embrace the freedom ESSA allows and the freedom for which many of you fought."

But DeVos has also been critical of states' approaches to implementation. Last year, she berated states in a speech to CCSSO.

"Let me be clear: Just because a plan complies with the law doesn't mean it does what's best for students," she said. "Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won't pass muster around kitchen tables."

Beyond voicing those concerns, she has done little to change the course of the law's implementation, however. Some worry the department's hands-off approach could hinder its ability to make sure states are serving historically overlooked groups of students.

"States want to do the right thing," said Scott Sargrad, who served in the department during the Obama administration and is now the vice president for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "They want to follow the law. I've heard from some folks that they are not getting the clarity they need of what is and isn't allowable and what some best practices might be that they should consider."

ESSA was supposed to provide states and districts with flexibility while looking out for vulnerable groups of students. Does it?

That depends on who you ask. Civil rights organizations—and Democrats in Congress—are deeply concerned that the Education Department has approved state plans that violate the law, in part because schools in those states can still get high ratings on state accountability systems, even if vulnerable subgroups of students aren't performing well.

In fact, in 2017, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrats in Congress on K-12 policy, sent a letter to DeVos saying she had "failed to adequately address several shortcomings in ESSA plans."

And in February, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter to state chiefs telling them that their ESSA plans allow schools to overlook vulnerable children and "will undermine ESSA's purpose to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps."

What's more, education experts find it problematic that a handful of states—including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Utah—have one accountability system to meet the federal requirements and a separate system for the state.

Those "competing systems" send mixed messages about what schools should actually be expected to focus on, said Anne Hyslop, the assistant director of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former Obama education staffer.

But Miller of the CCSSO said that equity has "underpinned" state's planning and implementation of the law. "The key on this law was reporting out subgroup performance. And that has continued to be a focus area for states," she said.

ESSA promised flexibility for states and districts. Did it deliver?

That also depends on who you ask. "States feel that it's been broad enough and wide enough for them to be able to customize it to their state and their stakeholders," Miller said.

But some district leaders say they don't notice that much of a difference between ESSA and its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

"The concept of freeing schools and districts from so many federal guidelines is a good one, but often the concept and reality do not match," said Tess Smith, the superintendent in Mississippi's Lamar County school district. "We still have to follow all of our state mandates as well, which I believe has led to more student assessments for us."

Andrew Hill, the superintendent of the Wadsworth City school district near Cleveland, agreed."I can't think of anything huge that says, 'Wow, [ESSA] had this immediate impact,' " Hill said.

Hill wants to see the leeway given to states trickle down to districts. With "the federal government taking a step backwards like they did, I'm hoping that states [use] that as an example and allow for more local control."

But Jillian Balow, Wyoming's superintendent of public instruction, said that while the new law provides a lot of leeway, there are limitations, and those are intentional.

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"There are still a lot of guardrails with ESSA, and we want that to be the case," she said. "We didn't want to start with a blank slate when we had a lot of really good things in place that school districts and states have been working on for a long time." It's been up to states, she said, to explain that to districts. "You can't just say, 'You have flexibility now,' without providing guidance in where that flexibility lies. And that's been part of the lift for states."

Will Congress ever revisit ESSA?

Believe it or not, ESSA technically expires in about 1½ years—the law only authorizes appropriations through the end of federal fiscal year 2020, which wraps up in September of that year. But don't expect lawmakers to dive into ESSA 2.0 anytime soon.

So far, there's no groundswell to change the law, Bellwether's Aldeman said. ESSA still "feels too new for lots of people. We haven't learned about what would need to change with the law in the next reauthorization," he said. And Congress has other things on its plate, including tackling a revamp of special education and higher education laws. "Even on education, it's way down the list of priorities."

Vol. 38, Issue 27, Pages 4-6

Published in Print: April 3, 2019, as Getting to the Tough Work of Making ESSA a Reality
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