For more than a decade, states and districts have had to consider off-the-shelf, federally prescribed interventions for many schools in which students weren’t meeting expectations.
That’s about to change.
The new, the latest revision of the nation’s main K-12 education law, gives local leaders a freer hand when it comes to fixing their lowest-performing schools, those with serious dropout problems, and schools that are doing well overall but where a particular group of students might be struggling.
Instead of choosing from a list of federal options as they had to do under the previous version of the law, the, districts and even schools will be able to cook up their own improvement strategies, as long as there is evidence to back up their approaches.
State and district officials are hoping the changes under ESSA—which goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year—will spur fresh thinking when it comes to improving student performance and give educators a greater sense of ownership over school improvement efforts, even as they work through tricky implementation issues.
The new, locally-driven approach “reflects a significant opportunity for states to step back and [to] inventory what has really worked over the last decade,” John White, Louisiana’s education commissioner, said in an interview.
But, he added, “Any reasonable observer would be concerned about the capacity issues, given the enormity of the challenge.”
In particular, he said, rural districts may not be able to tap support from nonprofit organizations and other outside partners that might have special expertise the district lacks, as readily as their urban counterparts.
What’s more, big questions loom about exactly how the new flexibility will play out. How much running room will states end up giving their districts? How exactly will ESSA’s requirement that school improvement interventions be backed up by evidence play out in practice? And will more local leeway actually translate to better outcomes for students?
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., for one, sees reasons to be optimistic about the change.
He said in an interview that the law’s approach to school improvement has the potential to be a “game changer” in that it gives districts and schools room to maneuver, while still focusing on strategies that have the potential to yield student-achievement dividends.
The U.S. Department of Education will be at the ready to assist states and districts in vetting improvement strategies, King said.
He ticked off a list of interventions that could hold promise, including expanding early-childhood education, dual enrollment, and positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, a tiered approach to student behavior.
“There’s an opportunity for states and districts to implement smart and well-supported strategies that make a difference,” he said.
But if a plan or program isn’t getting the desired results, districts and schools need to be prepared to step up their efforts or change course, King added. “If they’re not effective, districts have a responsibility to intensify those interventions.”
When it comes to school improvement, ESSA’s locally-driven approach represents a U-turn from both the NCLB law (which was the previous version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and from the Obama administration’s waivers from the mandates of that law.
The NCLB law called for schools that repeatedly missed achievement targets, set by the state under the law’s framework, to allow students to transfer to a better-performing school or to access free tutoring. Few parents took advantage of those opportunities. For instance, by the 2011-12 school year, just 10.9 percent of eligible students nationally were receiving free tutoring, and just 1.1 percent of students took advantage of public school choice, according to the Education Department.
Also under that law, schools that failed to make progress for years on end were supposed to be subject to serious penalties, such as state takeover or charter conversion. But the vast majority of states opted for other interventions, such as deploying school support teams, and performance at many schools continued to lag.
Flipping the Script
The Obama administration’s waivers, issued in 2012, flipped that script, giving states and districts greater say over what kinds of interventions were used for most schools.
But the waivers still called for dramatic change in the lowest-performing schools, including removing significant numbers of staff members or turning the school into a charter.
Local officials found the whole regimen too prescriptive—and the impact on student outcomes.
ESSA, on the other hand, embraces the philosophy that local district officials are in the best position to figure out what their schools need to do to improve.
The new law essentially asks states to divide struggling schools into two buckets.
Schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of performers in a state, those where less than two-thirds of students graduate, and schools where historically disadvantaged groups of students are seriously struggling are subject to what’s known as “comprehensive improvement.” That means the district has to come up with a plan—withto back it up—to get them on track.
The Obama administration has asked states to pinpoint schools for comprehensive improvement in the 2017-18 school year, although a range of education groups and members of Congress have called that timeline overly ambitious.
And, beginning in the 2018-19 school year, states have to identify another basket of schools—those where particular groups of students, such as English-language learners, are struggling—for what the law terms “targeted” improvement. In those cases, schools have to devise their own plan to fix the problem, monitored by the district.
Districts would also have to consider whether schools in “targeted” support because of low-performing subgroups are giving students from struggling groups access to their fair share of resources and effective teachers, under regulations proposed by the Obama administration and slated to be finalized later this fall.
That approach could lead to serious improvement—but there are risks too, said Carlas L. McCauley, who until recently worked on school improvement at the Education Department and is now the director of the Center for School Turnaround at WestEd, a research and consulting organization.
Districts and schools, he said, are often too busy putting out daily fires to be thinking about how to make big systemic, sustainable change.
“School/districts are not often equipped to manage performance or drive for results while also effectively [managing] the everyday challenges that exist with underperforming schools,” he wrote in an email.
Plus, he said, low-performing schools and districts often struggle with high staff turnover and burnout. That can make it tough to investigate outside-the-box interventions and implement a long-term plan.
State and District Dance
For its part, the Education Department wants districts and schools to do their best to pick improvement plans with a strong or moderate amount of evidence to back them up, according to draft ESSA regulations released earlier this year.
Some district officials are eager for to a greater level of autonomy.
Richard Fry, the superintendent of the 2,700-student Big Spring district in Pennsylvania, sees the door opening to interventions he thinks could hold great promise—such as turning a low-performing school into a community school where students can get access to health services as well as academics.
“I think everybody is excited,” he said. “There’s a sense it’s not going to be nearly as prescriptive.”
But there’s a lot left to consider, including how much of a free hand Pennsylvania and other states are interested in giving their districts.
“Districts are going to be reluctant” to move forward “until we have a better sense of where the state is willing to allow us to go,” Fry said.
States, meanwhile, are still sorting through exactly what their role will be when it comes to helping districts and schools pick improvement strategies and supporting them through the process. They could, for instance, decide to come up with a list of approved strategies and providers for districts to choose from, although that’s not a must.
But state officials interested in taking that step might not have many options to put on those lists—at least at first, said McCauley of West Ed. “There’s just not much out there” when it comes to turnaround strategies with a clear track record of fixing the lowest-performing schools.
And even though ESSA won’t be fully implemented until the 2017-18 school year, some states can draw on recent experience running turnarounds. More than a dozen states have come up with their own statewide turnaround. These run the gamut from intensive principal development in New Mexico to a focus on high school redesign—including dual enrollment—in Colorado.
Meanwhile, civil rights advocates say ESSA could give districts greater ownership over plans and a more tailored approach to school improvement. They warn, however, that even the best of plans won’t make much difference if they aren’t implemented with fidelity.
The risk “is that you do an improvement plan, and it sits around and collects dust, and two years later, you do an addendum to the plan, and an addendum to that addendum, and nothing is really happening,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children. “States and districts need to make sure that schools have the tools [they need] and continually monitor progress. If [the plan] is not working, something else has to happen.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as ESSA Clears Out Underbrush On School Improvement Path