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ESSA Accountability Proposal a Departure From Punitive Past, Secretary King Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 27, 2016 3 min read
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Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said Thursday that the department’s proposed accountability regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act represent an attempt to move away from the “overprescriptive and to some extent punitive” approach to accountability that proliferated under ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

During a visit to the J.C. Nalle Elementary School, King visited a classroom here and discussed the new rules with reporters. He emphasized that the new regulations were based on “a lot of listening” by department staffers to a variety of groups.

King also participated in a roundtable discussion at J.C. Nalle with education advocates, teachers, and others in a bid to highlight how ESSA and the draft rules the department released on it Wednesday try to broaden the definition of student success and give schools new ways to excel.

“We’ve tried to balance state and local flexibility with strong civil rights guardrails,” King told reporters.

The much-anticipated rules deal with a number of complicated and often controversial topics such as school ratings, test participation, school turnaround requirements.

Among other hot-button issues: The rules don’t require states to give indicators like test scores a specific weight. But they are required to give academic factors more weight. And when it comes to identifying schools for turnarounds, academic indicators would essentially carry more weight.

Schools would also have to publish comprehensive, summative ratings for schools. And states would have to choose from a menu of options of what to do about low test-participation rates in schools, or come up with their own strategies. In early reactions to the rules, there have been concerns about how states would have to address low participation in state exams, and how exactly states would and would not have to define “consistently underperforming” groups of students for school improvement purposes.

Once the draft rules are published in the Federal Register (slated to occur May 31), the public will have 60 days to provide comments on them. The public-comment window will close Aug. 1.

Broad Issues Discussed

While ESSA itself was the product of consensus and bipartisan compromise, when it comes to the law and the proposed rules, “Our purpose here is to make sure that we are doing our best for every single student at every single school,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who was also at the discussion.

The panel included a discussion of issues such as dual-language instruction, equitable funding for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and access to advanced coursework. These are all issues that King and the Education Department have emphasized when discussing ESSA and education more broadly in recent months.

Laurent Rigal, a physics teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Washington, recalled that when he taught at a different school, there was no instruction in physics and 900 students were graduating without having taken any classes in the subject. Initially, he had been asked to teach biology, even though he had been trained as a physics teacher. He built up Advanced Placement physics instruction at his previous school, but when he left, that instruction came to a halt, he recalled. (Students taking and successfully completing advanced coursework is one way schools could satisfy the requirement to have a school quality or student success accountability indicator under ESSA.)

“No one there was able to teach the class,” Rigal said of his former school when he left.

And Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted that schools have played an important role historically as a “leveler of societal injustices.” Among other things, he wants teachers with the most training to teach the disadvantaged students who need such quality instruction the most. He said he hopes that under ESSA, “Teachers and students are matched better.”

But Kristen Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, did register one concern she had with the draft rules: the requirement for each school to have a single, summative rating under ESSA. But she didn’t get into details about why she was worried.

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