The newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act aims to clip the wings of future education secretaries when it comes to accountability, testing, and more—but it doesn’t say anything about use of the bully pulpit.
And acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has made it clear over the first few weeks of his tenure that he will keep up the rhetorical drumbeat on the importance of educational equity for all students, no matter how the complicated process of regulating ESSA turns out. And he urged states to rethink educator-evaluation systems if they’re not actually helping teachers improve their practice.
King kicked off a five-city Opportunity Across America tour the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier this month. He’s stopped in El Paso, Texas, to talk about border students, and in Houston to encourage districts to pair academics with health services. Other stops have included Orlando, Fla., and Philadelphia.
And in a trio of speeches last week—in Washington, to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and to the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as at a teacher town hall in Philadelphia—King made clear that he sees equity as imperative as states craft their accountability systems in the new ESSA era.
“ESSA presents a moment of both opportunity and moral responsibility,” King said in his Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech to the civil rights advocates. The “new and larger role for states should be seen as a clarion call in the civil rights community.”
ESSA, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, continues to require states to look after their lowest-performing schools and schools where historically overlooked groups of students, such as English-language learners, aren’t performing well.
Overall, the revised law gives local leaders more flexibility to realize their K-12 vision—but there are also potential weak spots that could stall efforts to close the achievement gap if communities aren’t careful, King told the mayors in a separate speech on Jan. 20.
The secretary said he’s heartened that ESSA requires states to look beyond test scores and incorporate other measures of student achievement. That means states can consider access to advanced coursework for low-income students, access to arts and music education, and chronic absenteeism when rating their schools.
But the law also allows states to come up with their own set of indicators—opening the door, some civil rights advocates fear, to metrics that could make nearly every school look good, or obscure gaps between low-income and minority students and their more-advantaged peers.
“There’s an opportunity for states to adopt accountability systems that are equity-advancing,” King said in the speech to the mayors. “But there’s also risk those new indicators will be used to distract from core [questions] of whether or not schools are delivering on their responsibility to educate students.”
Leeway on Interventions
The new law also gives states and districts the leeway to develop their own interventions for struggling schools and students.
“We need to make sure that states are aggressive and leaning forward in trying to support the schools that are struggling the most,” he told the mayors. “We can’t allow the intervention requirements to become just a bureaucratic compliance strategy.”
He gave examples of remedies that he thinks could make a difference, including early-education and wraparound services.
What’s more, King said at the teacher town hall Jan. 21 that ESSA gives states and districts a “fresh start” and a “much-needed do-over” on the issue of teacher evaluation through student outcomes. States should work with teachers to revamp review systems that aren’t working—and state tests don’t necessarily have to be part of the picture.
“Teachers were not always adequately engaged by policymakers in the development of new systems,” King said. “And when they disagreed with evaluation systems, it appeared to pit them against those who they cherished most—their students. That was no one’s desire.”
Earlier in the week, King hit on an issue that many wished his predecessor, Arne Duncan, had touched on more often: the need to better integrate schools.
“I think this question of socioeconomic integration is bound up with the question of resources in schools,” King told the mayors. Integration, he said, can help ensure that all students have access to the same kinds of programs and resources.
“When you go many places in this country, it’s hard to find an affluent suburban school that isn’t offering art and music and technology,” he continued. “But then two miles away, sometimes two blocks away, ... you have a school that doesn’t have any of that. We need to see that as a community we all have a stake in every child.”
Also in talking to the mayors, King touched on college access, another area he’s said will be a priority during his single year in office.
Students will have an extra incentive to succeed academically if they can “walk into high school knowing that if they do well, if they earn good grades, they can have the opportunity to go to higher education,” he said.
On that front, the Department of Education last week released a pair of proposals related to Pell Grants, which help low-income students cover the cost of college. The proposals are designed to ensure that the program helps more students obtain college degrees more quickly.
But it’s unclear whether the proposals—which would cost about $2 billion in fiscal 2017—will win approval from a thrifty Congress.
One proposal, dubbed Pell for Accelerated Completion, would extend students’ eligibility for Pell Grants to a third semester, allowing more of them to take courses year-round and not stop their academic work during the summer.
The other On-Track Pell Bonus plan would lift the cap on the maximum grant award by $300 for students who take at least 15 credits per semester. That would help students stay on track to get associate degrees in two years, assuming 60 credits for such degrees, and to get bachelor’s degrees in four years, assuming those degrees require 120 credits.
Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept.'s Chief Turns Up Volume