Every Student Succeeds Act

With New ESEA Likely, State Chiefs Pledge Better Accountability

By Daarel Burnette II — December 01, 2015 4 min read

The No Child Left Behind Act brought exposure to wide education disparities between white students and students of color, state school chiefs acknowledged at a recent Council of Chief State School Officers policy forum here.

But during the law’s nearly 14-year lifespan, as the federal government rolled out strict mandates for how states and districts had to turn around underperforming schools and evaluate teachers, those gaps barely closed, they said.

Now, a long overdue update of NCLB that recently passed a congressional conference panel stands to shift a great deal of school-turnaround and -accountability work to the states’ chiefs.

The more than 40 state schools chiefs in attendance committed to continue working on equity—the theme of this year’s conference—by identifying achievement gaps and working to close them.

“Our members want to be held accountable,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, the Washington-based non-partisan organization that represents state schools chiefs.

“NCLB did a great thing in bringing the data forward,” Minnich continued. “With this flexibility, it’s time for states to step up. They’re ready to build better accountability systems.” Some civil rights advocates point out that it was the federal government that had to enforce the integration of schools after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, and has stepped in in more recent years to address the disproportionate rates of discipline used on students of color, especially African Americans.

Without strong federal accountability, those problems would only get worse, they say.

Wider Latitude

But some state chiefs said that under NCLB, they weren’t able to assist schools with the supports and funding for initiatives they say are proven to work.

“We welcome accountability,” said Thomas Bice, the Alabama superintendent. “We believe in assessment. But one size doesn’t fit all. What we need in Alabama may look different than what they need in Montana.”

Michael Martirano, the state superintendent in West Virginia, said he and his peers have been stuck enforcing federal mandates while also trying to pacify legislatures and state board members who want state control over public schools.

“There’s been a lot of tension for state chiefs between what the federal expectations are and what the state legislature and state board wants,” he said.

The framework of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the compromise measure being considered by Congress, would give wide latitude to state chiefs to design teacher evaluations, models for turning around low-performing schools, and standards.

During the conference, state chiefs, assisted by multicolored graphics and videos from their home states, spoke of what equity meant to them and the student data that keep them up at night. They held a three-hour roundtable in which they described best practices and the work they would like to expand if they are given more flexibility under an updated federal education law.

Hawaii, for example, wants to break out subgroups of Asian-American students to more aggressively target help for lagging segments of students within that diverse population. And Kentucky wants to focus more on fine arts and science.

“We built a great accountability structure with the waiver,” said Brenda Cassellius, the state superintendent of Minnesota, referring to her state’s waiver from several provisions of NCLB.

“I’m bothered when I hear people say that school chiefs won’t hold schools accountable,” she said. “That’s not been evident with the waivers. We’ve supported our schools and we’ve held them accountable.”

At the end of the conference, John B. King Jr., who’s slated to become the acting U.S. Secretary of Education this month, told the group that reauthorization of the federal education law is long overdue and that he hopes if they are given more authority, state chiefs will continue President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve the quality of the nation’s teachers, identify and work to close achievement gaps, and raise academic standards.

Neither King, who is currently filling the duties of deputy secretary, nor Roberto Rodriguez, who is Obama’s deputy assistant for education, tipped their hands in a conversation with Minnich, the CCSSO director, as to what parts of the wide-ranging reauthorization framework the administration liked or didn’t like.

“If reauthorization passes, we’re excited about the work that’s ahead,” King said.

“If it doesn’t pass, we’ll continue the good work we’ve done working with the waivers [from the No Child Left Behind Act],” he said. “It’s an ambitious agenda. Everybody feels a sense of urgency.”

‘Conversations Around Race’

King pointed out that the original federal education law—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—itself was created in the midst of the civil rights movement and that the nation is grappling again with similar issues of disparities between white students and their nonwhite peers.

While states are thinking about ways to better hold their own schools accountable, it’s important that they think more creatively about how to provide equitable, adequate, and integrated school environments for all of the nation’s children, he said.

“This legislation [now before the Congress] rightly puts in the hands of states the ability to focus on equity,” he said. “What will you do with that? We need to have difficult conversations around race.”

Rodriguez said he hoped states continue to provide students access to pre-K and to make sure high school graduates are prepared for higher education and the workforce.

“We’re pleased with the progress that’s been made,” he said about the compromise ESEA legislation.

“We continue to review the language as it becomes available. A lot of these policies around greater flexibilities and control, these are policies we tried to advance in 2012 in order to launch the ESEA [renewal] process.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as With New ESEA Likely, State Chiefs Pledge Better Accountability

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