Signing ESSA into law was only the beginning
States and districts are working to develop implementation plans for next era of K-12 education
President Barack Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act in December, signaling what could mark a massive shift in the direction of the nation's biggest K-12 law, and now state and local school leaders are doing the hard work of implementation. That work includes the development of strategic visions for education, reconsidering their assessment plans, coming up with new accountability systems and deciding how to evaluate teachers.
Negotiated rulemaking has continued as the federal government works to finalize regulations. The U.S. Department of Education has said it plans to complete this work by the end of the year, leaving at least a portion of the state work in flux.
Overall, ESSA has been hailed for its shift of power back to states following more than a decade of tight federal control over district-level policy. With this power, however, comes great responsibility for local education agencies.
“The success or the failure of activity under the law is going to rest with us,” said Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We can’t blame the federal government in the way we could in the past.”
The CCSSO has supported ESSA, and Zamora said the new law maintains the core principles his organization outlined before Congress started debating this latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While a range of education and civil rights groups voiced their support for the new law, many are watching to ensure implementation remains true to the act itself.
As many of the same supporters learned following widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards, there are serious opportunities to get off track during implementation.
The CCSSO is among the organizations offering support to states and school districts as they develop plans for the next era of elementary and secondary education. The American Association of School Administrators is another. Noelle Ellerson, associate director of policy and advocacy, said schools should be looking forward to the replacement of NCLB’s carrots and sticks with ESSA’s guardrails and safety nets.
“ESSA is a re-setting of the baseline,” Ellerson said. “Schools can think about what they want to do instead of just what they can do.”
The compliance-based mentality fostered by No Child Left Behind is no longer necessary, and educators will be invited to try new, evidence-based strategies. Ellerson said educators should be deliberate in their research and use collaborative approaches to developing their ideas.
Stakeholder engagement, then, will be key. “People buy into what they have a hand in creating,” Ellerson said.
While ESSA provisions are not expected to be fully in place until the 2017-18 school year, some already see problems in the timeline to get new systems up and running. That could impact the way the bottom 5% of schools are identified, potentially allowing data from No Child Left Behind to bleed into accountability systems designed for ESSA.
States now are deciding how to measure school performance and choosing the indicators they will ask schools to report. Zamora said participation in advanced coursework has been popular so far, as has the idea of school climate surveys to measure student engagement. So far, the statute says indicators have to be valid, reliable and comparable. They also have to be able to be disaggregated, and they have to yield increases in academic achievement and graduation rates.
The Department of Education’s final regulations will provide some limits for schools, but Ellerson said members of the American Association of School Administrators are looking forward to having their work with students measured by more than a standardized test.
Schools will have more flexibility in the way they assess teachers, too. ESSA does not require teachers to be evaluated using standardized test scores, and it takes away education requirements for hiring teachers, leaving states to decide who is most qualified. Neither Zamora nor Ellerson expects districts to take advantage of this freedom and skip evaluations entirely. Indeed, the Los Angeles Unified School District has been making headlines for its new teacher evaluation plan as it joins other districts in revamping old practices.
One gray area that may not get any clarity for a few more months is the extent of the “supplement not supplant” provision of Title I funding under ESSA. The Department of Education proposed rules in April that required schools to equalize average per-student funding across schools that get Title I funds, and those that do not must prove the federal money is in addition to local dollars.
While well-intentioned, Zamora says the proposal would fail in practice because of the complexity of state and local systems. Rulemaking committee members are still working on a plan that would uphold the heart of the provision while giving schools the flexibility they need to address transportation, staffing and other expenditure considerations.
As districts and states make progress with their own plans for the new regulations, the CCSSO and the AASA remain committed to helping members learn from each other. And Ellerson hopes the Department of Education takes up the challenge of serving as a clearinghouse for the best evidence-based practices being implemented around the country.
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