Kay Cavanaugh, who helps run the only schoolhouse in Trenton, a speck of a town on North Dakota’s sprawling western plains, used to appreciate the accountability movement ushered in by the No Child Behind Act. Just half of the one-school district’s 200 students meet the state’s academic reading and math benchmarks and, she said, “I’m convinced we could do better.”
But, over the years, the federal law got old. It stifled innovation and relied too heavily on one annual exam, in Cavanaugh’s view. And the state never received a federal waiver of the law’s mandates.
So Cavanaugh was cautiously optimistic to hear at a statewide conference here that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the NCLB law, the North Dakota education department wants to dramatically upend the way it holds schools accountable.
No longer would it label schools as failing. Instead, improvement would be expected at a much more incremental pace, and such crucial decisions as how to close achievement gaps and improve teaching mostly would be left up to local school boards.
“I didn’t see anything that gave me pause,” Cavanaugh, the elementary school principal in Trenton’s K-12 school, said of the state ESSA plan, outlined at last week’s conference and now pending before the U.S. Department of Education. “The state will still have to show academic progress, but it looks like they’re still holding us accountable.”
Cavanaugh and thousands of other educators across the country will have to do the heaviest lifting once the law goes into effect this fall.
At conferences, through webinars, and in regional training sessions these next few months, state education departments will walk district leaders through the laundry list of changes coming their way under the Every Student Succeeds Act. There will be new data-entry forms they’ll have to fill out, new academic benchmarks they’ll have to meet, and new sanctions they’ll face if they fail to meet those benchmarks.
Whether or not practitioners buy in to those blueprints—which state officials are pitching to local educators as “for them, by them"—will largely determine ESSA’s success.
North Dakota schools will, arguably, experience some of the nation’s most dramatic changes under the new law.
The state’s plan, according to experts who have reviewed it, pushes the boundaries of state flexibility. Some of those experts have warned North Dakota officials that the plan will likely be rejected during the federal Education Department’s peer-review process, which has just begun.
Under the plan, school districts would not be required to identify ineffective teachers, as the law requires, but instead would identify how much “ineffective teaching” occurs at a school.
North Dakota would not academically rank its 517 public schools, and all of its schools, rather than just a handful, would be categorized as needing “continuous improvement.” Under the plan, the 13 worst-performing schools would receive more federal dollars and be provided with school turnaround consultants, but there would be no state takeovers or firings of staff members.
The plan also would cap at 10 percent the number of schools the state labels as having persistently underperforming groups of students of color and students with special needs—even though state officials admit that many more schools would likely qualify for intervention under federal guidelines.
Most of the state’s efforts at school turnarounds would be outsourced to AdvancED, a national school accreditor, and the School Improvement Network, a private school-turnaround agency.
Bracing for Pushback
North Dakota officials are bracing for a fight with the federal Education Department—and they in part used last week’s “ESSA summit” in Mandan, like a previous one in Fargo, as a sort of rally.
“We wrenched back control from the federal government, and we gave that control to you,” said Kirsten Baesler, the state’s elected superintendent.
During a one-on-one meeting earlier this spring with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Baesler and her federal-title-programs director, Laurie Matzke, said they told the secretary they feared their plan would be rejected.
“She told us, ‘If that happens, you call me,’ ” said Matzke, although DeVos did not make any specific promises to them. “We told her this is what we want to do. We didn’t come up with this plan on a whim.”
The 250 or so educators who gathered at the Mandan summit to learn details of the North Dakota ESSA plan enthusiastically welcomed most of the changes.
“This is leaps and bounds from what we’re coming out of,” said Pat Brenden, the superintendent of the Dunseith school district, where a majority of the 395 students are Native American.
North Dakota educators said they wrote the accountability plan fully aware of the state’s distinctive geography, sparse population, and homestead tradition that has long emphasized local control.
More than two-thirds of North Dakota’s schools are rural and isolated, and the state is one of the nation’s least-populated, with just 758,000 residents spread over 70,800 square miles. The state has experienced a severe teacher and superintendent shortage, and many district chiefs at the May 8 conference described having to teach, drive buses, and oversee multiple districts. Job postings go unanswered for years at a time.
The oil boom of the early 2000s brought an influx of immigrant and black students who added to North Dakota’s diversity and also brought new academic challenges. The drop in oil prices since then has brought a series of budget cuts, a high student-mobility rate, and climbing unemployment.
When President Barack Obama’s administration offered waivers of key provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, state Superintendent Beasler, who was first elected in 2012, abruptly withdrew North Dakota’s application after she and other state officials came to an impasse with the federal Education Department over setting student-achievement goals for the lowest-performing schools.
Today, more than 180 schools in 150 school districts are categorized as failing under the state’s NCLB-era accountability system, putting added pressure on the state’s 100 education agency employees and stretching its resources.
Against that backdrop, ESSA, which Obama signed into law in December 2015, was a huge relief to many educators here.
Through a series of colorful slide shows at the two conferences earlier this month, the state education department’s staff gave an overview of the biggest changes in the plan. The state will follow up with webinars and regional training by some of the 50 stakeholders—such as Native American tribal leaders, curriculum coaches and union officials—who helped devise the plan.
“It really is a new dawn for teaching and learning in North Dakota,” Baesler, a former teacher, principal, and board member who last fall was re-elected to the state’s superintendent post, told educators in Mandan.
During a session on the proposed new teacher-evaluation system, administrators showed a series of forms school administrators would have to fill out
To some in the room, entering more data into a system seemed like yet another burden for already-overworked school officials.
“It continues to mushroom out of control, and I really don’t get what it’s being used for,” said Nick Klemisch, the superintendent of the Garrison schools, who said his district of 200 students has two administrators and one secretary.
But Anthony Esquibel, a principal in the Parshall school district, which sits on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and has about 280 students, said he welcomed the opportunity to give teachers more specific feedback.
“I think this is going to help guide them in the right direction without punishing them,” he said.
Esquibel said many of his students bring to school problems on the home and family fronts that include homelessness and alcoholism. He said decisions would likely be better made closer to the school, where he knows his students’ needs. His district is debating whether to adopt the state’s ESSA plan or the plan the federal Bureau of Indian Education is expected to release this fall.
“I think I’ll have more say under this plan,” he said referring to North Dakota’s proposal.
Levi Bachmeier, the education adviser to Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, sat in on the stakeholder-engagement process about the plan, which Burgum endorsed. Bachmeier told administrators at the conference he’d like to hear any concerns they have about the changes.
“Now’s your chance,” Baesler stood up and said.
The room fell silent.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as Meetings Offer Grassroots Look At ESSA Details