How States Should Navigate New Opportunities Under ESSA (Part 1 of 2)

After 14 years, Congress has finally overhauled No Child Left Behind. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns substantial autonomy to states when it comes to school accountability, teacher evaluation, school improvement, and much else. The end of NCLB’s requirements and of the Obama administration’s “ESEA waivers” has occasioned both celebration and angst, while creating many opportunities for states to act.

Education Next has invited eight experts to contribute to a special forum on how states should approach the post-NCLB era. Contributors were asked what advice they would offer to states. In particular they were invited to consider what states should include alongside test scores in their accountability systems, how states should set accountability targets and revamp their accountability systems, whether states should continue the teacher evaluation systems adopted as a condition for ESEA waivers, and how states should design interventions for schools flagged as low-performing.

In part 1 of this forum we include contributions from Nina Rees, Greg Richmond, Aimee Rogstad Guidera, and Mike Magee. In part 2, we include contributions from Charles Barone, Bill Jackson, Dane Linn, and Linda Darling-Hammond.



ednext-jan16-essa-reesGive Families More Options and Power

by Nina Rees

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has officially ended the era of No Child Left Behind and the subsequent forms that it took under Secretary Duncan’s waiver regime. Some key reforms live on, including the federal requirement that states test their students in reading and math from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, disaggregate the results, and report the information to the public; and the requirement that states intervene in the bottom five percent of their schools. But federally prescribed consequences and interventions are gone. States now decide how to design accountability systems and spur school improvement.

In an ideal world, transparency would suffice in prompting families to move their students to better schools and encourage the school system to make needed improvements to keep more families from exiting. Unfortunately, unlike other enterprises in which competition improves the overall quality of the product or service being offered, this dynamic has not worked as well in our education system. Parents with means leave schools that aren’t meeting the needs of their students, choosing better public or private schools, while low-income students usually remain stuck in the schools they are assigned to attend. I am not sure poor parents need better report cards to know that their school is not serving their child well.

Yet the data that emerge from disaggregated tests can serve as a tool for policymakers to do right by their most disadvantaged students. If I were a governor or a state education chief, I would seize on three lessons from NCLB to create policies to better serve these students:

1. Give parents more options. Though NCLB’s consequences were too rigid and hard to enforce, they were rooted in the basic premise that a top-down accountability system can only work if parents have some sort of recourse when schools fail. ESSA keeps in place a handful of competitive programs, such as the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), that can put good school options within more parents’ reach. The CSP recently received an $80 million injection of funding to help launch new charter schools, and state leaders who care about parental choice can leverage these funds to create charter schools in districts where the need for options is greatest. ESSA also allows states and local authorities to use up to seven percent of their Title I funds for school turnaround. States should maximize the impact of this funding by expanding access to charter schools as part of their turnaround efforts.

2. Help struggling students in good schools. NCLB was most effective in shining a light on subgroup deficiencies in suburban schools that were otherwise performing well. This truth-telling was one reason so many suburban parents ended up souring on the law. The good news is that suburban schools are the most well-equipped to address their subgroup deficiencies, if leaders take them seriously. Where the schools are not meeting the needs of certain subgroups, states should pressure schools to address the inequities and support them in doing so.

3. Rally community resources to help parents. Under NCLB, districts were required to inform parents when their children were attending schools in need of improvement, but the communication between districts and parents was rarely clear or effective. States that want to help parents become more savvy education consumers should consider contracting with third-party validators who can provide parents better information about their children’s schools, and also about other resources that are available to families through organizations like Communities in Schools, which works to develop partnerships between schools and other student service providers in the local area. Partnerships with community-based organizations capable of serving as true watchdogs for families can be a game changer in settings where parents don’t have a voice.

NCLB’s greatest shortcoming was that it tried to do too much at once and created dynamics that led to a sense of helplessness in many schools. The problems that NCLB flagged have not gone away, but states now have a chance to address them using tools and techniques that better equip parents to demand change and maintain a sense of urgency about the needs of the disadvantaged students the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was crafted to help! Let’s hope a few states seize on this opportunity to carve a new path forward – and inspire others to follow.

Nina Rees is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.



ednext-jan16-essa-richmondUse Specially Tailored Interventions in More Schools

by Greg Richmond

As states begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), most will mistakenly believe that only five percent of our public schools need to improve and many will attempt to impose a single approach to intervention. Both ideas are incorrect.

Although ESSA requires states to intervene in the lowest-performing five percent of schools, far more schools need dramatic improvement, regardless of how you measure performance.

On international comparisons, one in four (26%) U.S. students do not reach proficiency in mathematics on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Of the 34 countries included in the PISA ranking, the U.S. comes in 17th in reading and 20th in science.

Using a domestic standard, the most recent findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) estimated that 64 percent of all fourth graders and 66 percent of all eighth grade students across the country are not proficient in reading.

Looking at high school graduates, a number of recent state and national reports—including a report from the United States Chamber of Commerce—estimate that in around half of all states, at least 40 percent of higher education students are taking remedial courses, a clear sign that many high school graduates are unprepared for post-secondary work.

None of these data support the idea that only five percent of our schools need to improve. To help more students receive an excellent education, states should raise the threshold for intervention far above the bottom five percent.

Bottom five percent of what? States should use a variety of student outcome measures to determine which schools should be subject to intervention. The key phrase here is “student outcome measures.” States should not include input measures when determining whether a school should be subject to intervention. Rather, they should:

Include academic measures, graduation rates, college enrollment rates, attendance rates, and mobility rates.

Include in their academic measures English, mathematics, science and history/civics/social studies.

Look at proficiency rates plus the growth in individual students’ achievement over time on all of the above.

Map performance on all of these measures against free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates to determine which schools are truly excelling at educating low-income students and which schools are simply coasting along with an advantaged student body.

Finally, look at performance by sub-group to maintain a focus on achievement gaps.

Once a state has identified a list of the schools subject to intervention, it must recognize that not all the schools on the list are the same. At this point, the state should evaluate the context—the inputs—of each school to determine the appropriate interventions.

First, evaluate the school district context. Is this a case of a single failing school in the midst of a successful school district or is it a case where many or most of a district’s schools are failing? The former suggests a remedy aimed at an individual school. The latter suggests a remedy aimed at the whole district.

Second, not all struggling schools are alike and states need to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each school. Using a framework like Tony Bryk’s five essential supports for school improvement or Greg Anrig’s five common strategies of successful School Improvement Grants, states can determine which schools have some or many building blocks in place for improvement and which schools do not. When schools already have many building blocks in place, the state should give those schools the tools and autonomy they need to make the next steps. This is similar to the strategy in place in Tennessee’s Innovation Zone. If schools are failing on multiple fronts, the better strategy may be to bring in a new operator as a charter school.

After years of experiencing a one-size-fits-all federal approach to school accountability and intervention, ESSA provides states with an opportunity to excel by designing new systems that reach far more children with intervention strategies that meet their needs and the needs of their schools. The onus is now on each state to realize the opportunity and create real change.

Greg Richmond is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.




Provide Data in a Form that Meets People’s Needs

by Aimee Rogstad Guidera

What an opportunity! With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states can build upon No Child Left Behind’s most positive legacy—data—and use information to transform education. This law creates the opportunity for states to reorient accountability from a focus on complying with federal law to ensuring more meaningful accountability to families and taxpayers. States should use the flexibility provided by ESSA to increase transparency so that parents, teachers, and everyone who has a stake in education will have the information they need to make decisions that help students excel.

Our sector is plagued by a culture of compliance. Just going through the motions doesn’t get results. Take our nation’s #1 New Year’s resolution: get in shape. I can plod through my exercise routine and see no results. But if I actually use data from my heartbeat, calories, and intervals completed to inform my decisionmaking (put down the chips) and actions (increase heartbeat for 5 more minutes), I start seeing positive changes.

This applies to education as well. ESSA allows states to shift the focus from collecting and reporting data to ensuring that the data is turned into meaningful indicators of student progress and achievement. The law also places a priority on getting useful data into the hands of those closest to students, and making sure there is training so those individuals know how to use the information responsibly and effectively. This is a game changer. NCLB launched a decade of building states’ data infrastructure; ESSA is about taking advantage of this infrastructure to not only create more meaningful accountability measures, but to also provide greater transparency, empower decisionmaking, personalize learning, and ensure we keep kids on track for success.

So what should states do to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity? Policymakers and practitioners need to:

Discern that different data are needed for various purposes. Part of the reason data is seen as a hammer and not a flashlight in education is that, overwhelmingly, it has been used to shame and blame, not to help inform and support. States need to thoughtfully consider which data are necessary for which purposes. The data that are necessary to report out for public accountability are different from the data that a teacher needs to make daily decisions about helping a student master a concept. Those data, in turn, are different from what a principal needs to evaluate how she can help her staff improve their practice and student outcomes. Until we untangle this, data will continue to be a four-letter word to teachers.

Provide data in a way that shows its value. Why have some teachers and parents rallied against high-stakes tests? Because states haven’t provided them with the information they need in a timely manner and in a format that’s easy to understand. Data is useless if it isn’t trusted and doesn’t meet people’s needs.

Create the conditions and capacity to support those closest to children in using this rich information in the service of student learning. Just providing access to data doesn’t change anything. Teachers need the training, time, and support to use this information to personalize learning and increase achievement for every child.

ESSA incentivizes states to take these three critical actions to change the culture around data use. Parents will now have their number-one question answered, because ESSA requires the inclusion on school report cards of the percentage of graduates who go on to college and how many needed remediation. States now have the responsibility for making sure every student succeeds. They can only meet this goal by changing how they use data.

Aimee Rogstad Guidera is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Data Quality Campaign.




Embrace the Goal of College and Career Readiness

by Mike Magee

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) affords us an opportunity to let the answers to some pretty simple questions drive the complex decisions that states and districts will have to make about accountability system design. We ought to start here: a quality public school prepares all of its students for college and careers. If we take that definition seriously, then other indicators that districts might chose to use to hold schools accountable (such as attendance, student and teacher satisfaction, or community engagement) should rise accordingly.

One of the big mistakes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enshrining its aspirational target of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 in the accountability system itself. It was this mistake that caused “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) to become a fundamentally deceptive metric for measuring school performance. Knowing that universal proficiency was not achievable, the federal government allowed states to define how much progress towards that goal would be deemed “adequate.” States predictably played with the progress curves, enabling most schools to celebrate making AYP for a while and creating the 2014 cliff that ushered in the era of NCLB waivers. If the progress measured by AYP wasn’t really adequate, then how could the public put their faith in accountability at all?

Compounding the problem was the fact that the definition of “proficiency” varied widely from one state to the next and was a moving target within many of them. Even had it been accurate and consistent, proficiency was too abstract a goal for the public to get behind.

“College and Career Readiness” may be the meaningful, agreed upon goal we’ve needed. The new state assessments (along with old standards like the SAT, ACT, and AP credits) are diagnostic enough, it seems to me, to have real explanatory power, offering answers to such questions as “Why do only a third of young Americans complete four year college degrees?” and “Why do two-thirds of my state’s community college students require remedial coursework?” And their purpose is clear enough to function as the heart of an accountability system, giving force and purpose to additional measures.

Here, I think, is the recipe for success: Faith in the goal of college and career readiness for all students. Faith in the state assessment of progress towards that goal. Alignment of district and school assessments to the state assessment.

Once everyone is confident in this alignment, other quantitative measures, such as matriculation and graduation rates, become even more meaningful and important. States that focus on creating faith in the goal and the assessment will be better positioned to add nuance to their systems because of a general consensus that the foundation is firm. There is a lot we are likely to learn about college and career readiness during the ESSA era. The goal should stay firm, the assessments elastic.

States should focus their time, energy, and resources where they are likely to have the highest impact on student success. ESSA should not be seen as an invitation to take the overly prescriptive and bureaucratic interventions of NCLB and transfer them from the federal to the state government. What states can do expertly and with a lot of fidelity, it seems to me, is create the ecosystem where everyone—administrators, teachers, parents, and students—has incentives to do the right thing.

In considering consequences for low-performing schools, states should not think in terms of punitive interventions. Rather, they should focus on opening up opportunities for students. I don’t have much faith in states’ ability to micromanage school improvement plans but I have a lot of faith in their ability to incentivize schools to improve and provide other options for their students when they don’t. Between the relatively robust federal Charter School Program, the new ability to use Title I set-aside funds for critical course access, and fast-moving innovations in personalized learning, both states and districts have powerful tools for school improvement. If they combine the smart use of those tools with equally smart investments in teacher and leader effectiveness, the goal of having every student succeed will start to seem less like the horizon line we can’t reach and more like the finish line we can.

Mike Magee is Chief Executive Officer of Chiefs for Change.

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