Bricks Without Straw: Maryland’s ESSA Accountability Plan

Last week, Maryland governor Larry Hogan notified the State Board of Education (on which I serve*) and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that he will not sign the state’s ESSA accountability plan, which is due in Washington on Monday. The previous day, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker notified his state superintendent of public instruction that he won’t sign that one, either.

Both of these Republican chief executives focused their criticisms of their states’ ESSA accountability plans on a similar shortcoming: the wimpiness of their treatment of low-performing schools. In Walker’s words:

Your bureaucratic proposal does little to challenge the status quo for the benefit of Wisconsin’s students. For example, under the law, a “rigorous intervention” is required for low-performing schools. In your plan, schools may simply implement an improvement plan created under the supervision of the Department of Public Instruction. I hope you will agree that adding layers of bureaucratic paperwork does little to help low-performing schools.

Here’s how Hogan put it, referring to legislation passed by the Democratic-majority legislature that put sharp limits on what could be in Maryland’s plan:

Chapter 29 stymies any attempt to hold schools accountable for student performance and includes provisions aimed at preserving the status quo in failing schools. It identifies no evidence-based intervention strategies to address our lowest performing schools.

I don’t know much about the inner workings of Wisconsin education politics and policy, save that state superintendent Tony Evers is probably going to run against Governor Walker next year. I do know a fair amount about how the Maryland situation came about. Worried that the state board of education might put real teeth into its ESSA plan—provisions that might actually embarrass failing schools and might actually force them to change—the state’s powerful NEA affiliate, the Maryland State Education Association, joined this time by the state’s influential associations of local school boards and local superintendents, prevailed upon compliant legislators to pass a law (fittingly named the “Protect Our Schools Act,” as it does nothing to protect needy, ill-educated children) that constrained Maryland’s ESSA plan in a number of areas.

Besides the one that Hogan identified, for example, it limited to 65 percent the portion of a school’s performance rating that could be based on actual academic achievement (though ESSA requires that achievement be weighed “much more” heavily than “school quality”). It banned the use of an A-to-F letter grading system for schools, though Florida and many other states have employed that reader-friendly system. It barred the use of any achievement data in the indicators used for “school quality” (i.e., the 35 percent). It spelled out how indicators must—and must not—be weighted. And it required all of the state’s public schools to be mathematically rank-ordered by percentiles according to all the indicators and prohibited other considerations (such as whether a school that shows exceptional pupil growth might get “extra credit” in the rating system).

Because of these restrictions on what he (and I) view as a proper school accountability system, Hogan vetoed the legislation—but was overridden.

Heroically supported by the capable staff of the Maryland State Department of Education, the state board did its best to craft a decent ESSA plan within these constraints (and others imposed by ESSA itself, such as the federal law’s refusal to let us count student achievement in science and history—along with math and reading—in schools’ academic ratings). We spent countless hours at it and solicited input and feedback from innumerable “stakeholders.”

Yet the process, and the product that will head to Washington on Monday, call to mind the passage in Exodus where Pharaoh tells the Israelites that they could no longer have any straw to put in the bricks that he was forcing them to make—though they still had to make as many bricks as before.

It’s well known that mud bricks made without straw are sure to crumble. And that’s how I feel about Maryland’s ESSA accountability plan. That’s apparently how Governor Hogan feels, too. The General Assembly burned most of our straw. We did our level best to make bricks without it. But the Governor sees how weak they are.

Secretary DeVos will now have to decide whether she thinks our bricks are strong enough. (And Wisconsin’s, too.)

* In this commentary, I do not represent anyone’s views but my own and do not speak for the State Board. 

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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