State ESSA Plans Are in the Eye of the (Viewpoint) Holder

There has been a lot of discussion of state ESSA plans since the remaining 34 states submitted their plans earlier this fall, with various efforts assessing state plans against a set of common metrics. We wonks can go back and forth all day niggling on the metrics and indicators in each analysis (did it place enough emphasis on student subgroup performance, or on state’s long-term goals for growth and proficiency?), but that masks another important — and deeper — question:

How do states view the purpose of their state ESSA plans?

Among the American public and among state education leaders, there are vastly different perspectives on the role of the federal government in education. Whether you agree or disagree with the additional leeway that states enjoy under ESSA, the reality is that state leaders who believe that states should drive education policy will approach their ESSA plans with an orientation very different from state leaders who believe that the federal government should play a dominant role.

If I’m a state chief who believes in the importance of federalism, I might well approach my state ESSA plan with a compliance mindset. What does my team need to commit to in order to receive federal funding, while maintaining maximum flexibility to execute the reforms we believe our state needs? This might suggest setting more modest long-term goals or developing less detailed plans for school turnaround — not because I am less committed to ensuring success for all students, but because I don’t want to limit my options. (Side note: when it comes to school turnaround, this seems wholly appropriate, since the success rate of past turnaround efforts suggest we should be humble about what we can promise).

Meanwhile, if I’m a state chief who believes in the central role of the federal government in shaping reform efforts, then I might well approach my state ESSA plan as the encapsulation of our five-year strategic plan — using it as an agency-wide exercise that facilitates and shapes the education policies and practices of my administration. This might suggest setting ambitious goals, creating new structures and specific models for school turnaround, and demonstrating a continued commitment to the promises and priorities of the Obama administration.

State plans from such states will look vastly different, not necessarily because some state plans are “better” than others, but because states’ goals for their plans were different to begin with.

Of course, there are factors beyond federalism that might affect how states approach their ESSA plans. States might have different challenges and therefore a set of policy priorities alternative to those emphasized in ESSA, they could be skeptical of federal priorities that haven’t delivered in the past, or perhaps they are in the middle of implementing an existing reform agenda. Whatever the reason, as we think about state ESSA plans, we must keep in mind that states might share the same goals for students, but don’t all share the same goals for these documents.

If we measure some states against a set of goals that they don’t share, they are likely to fall short. That’s not a moral failing of those state leaders. And it’s not an indication that they place less value on the importance of education. It’s a reflection that there’s a plurality of viewpoints across the country that can’t all be measured against a single yardstick.