Tag Archives: ESSA

Under ESSA, Subgroup Accountability is like Gotham Without Batman

When something is wrong in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon puts up the bat signal and a powerful spotlight projects Batman’s symbol into the night sky. It’s a simple idea, really: make it crystal clear that there is a problem and alert the person who can do something about it.

This was the basic concept of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law required states to shine a spotlight on schools where individual groups of students were struggling — in order to reveal a problem. And with the problem revealed, schools, districts, and states were required to do something to solve it.

The attention to subgroup performance was the most popular aspect of NCLB. When the law was finally reauthorized in late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created an accountability system in which states must report inequities, but in the vast majority of cases, aren’t required to do anything about them. In lieu of NCLB-style accountability, the hope was that states and districts would create systems to act as Batman, and respond with additional support tailored to meet the needs of struggling schools and students. Barring that, since the law only requires states to identify the lowest of the low-performing schools, ESSA relies on transparency to encourage schools to improve.

Unfortunately, however, our new analysis of the accountability plans from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. found systems that were unambitious, uncreative, and, in some instances, unfinished. The worst part is that, in 41 out of the 51 state plans, subgroup performance will have no bearing on the ratings most schools receive.

This would be akin to Gotham police shining a plain spotlight into the night sky in the hopes that someone — anyone — would respond or that the bright light alone would stop crime.

Across the board, state accountability plans follow more or less the same pattern. They promise to report subgroup achievement across their selected indicators; but, when a school’s overall rating is calculated, it will be based solely on school-wide averages. Under this approach, schools can appear to be at least average while hiding massive achievement gaps.

In most cases, subgroups only truly matter in a few schools in which the performance of a group of students is as low as the worst performing 5 percent of schools in the state. And even then, it’s not clear that states have an effective strategy to improve struggling schools. In short, these plans will shine a light on a still-undetermined number of schools, and do little to resolve them.

There are very few exceptions to these retrograde policies.

In Tennessee, for example, 40 percent of a school’s score is based on subgroup achievement. Under this model, subgroup performance actually matters since the state uses these ratings to determine the schools that will receive additional support and resources. Minnesota takes a different tact to ensure that its schools are held accountable for subgroups: Instead of taking a school-wide average, the state first looks at the average performance for each subgroup and then combines that number into an overall average for the school. This model ensures that all subgroups count equally in the accountability system.

In Gotham, the bat signal works because the medium carries the message, leading Batman to show up and take care of the problem. Although imperfect, that’s how NCLB worked: states revealed problems and they then had to take steps to address them. Under ESSA, that’s no longer the case.

A public school serving mostly poor or non-white students is not a dystopian city like Gotham. Nevertheless, it is a place rife with injustice, where kids have been failed habitually by public institutions. These students don’t need a superhero to save them. What they need are state education systems designed to ensure that they are not misrepresented, underserved, under-resourced, or over-policed. They need access to all of the tenets of a high-quality education that they have so long been denied. And that takes real and intentional action, not just a bare spotlight.

Our New Reviews of California and New York’s Draft ESSA Plans

Last spring, Bellwether partnered with the Collaborative for Student Success to convene an independent peer review of the first round of ESSA state plans. We brought together a bipartisan, nationally esteemed group of education policy experts to review the plans from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

We will do full reviews of the remaining 34 state plans after they’re submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month. In the meantime, we decided to review the draft plans put out for public comment by California and New York, given the outsized importance of these two states in education policy and politics.

You can read our interim reviews of the California and New York plans here. Given the size of California and New York’s diverse student populations, as well as their geographic diversity, we believe feedback on their draft plans is important in not only strengthening these state’s final submissions, but also in providing information for other states still writing their plans.

This interim project was intended as a quick-turnaround, rapid-response analysis, and we did not use the full quality peer review process we used in round one — and which we will use again in round two. We recently received some feedback from California policymakers working on the plan about a few mistakes that were made in haste. We’ve made some edits as a result, and the reviews you’ll see on our website now incorporate these edits.

As one example, we wrote that, “at the indicator level… California has not yet specified definitions for chronic absenteeism…” While California has adopted a definition of chronic absenteeism for data collection purposes, their plan states they won’t know how they’re going to turn it into an indicator for accountability purposes until fall 2018. Our review could have been clearer about this distinction, and we’ve since updated it. As another example, we wrote “December 2018” where we should have written “January 2018,” and have since fixed this. In another place, we rephrased our comments about California’s exit criteria for low-performing schools. We had initially understood California’s proposed exit criteria to be normative, implying a school could exit simply if it improved its relative standing in the rankings. After taking another look, we have removed that language from our review. These revisions are now reflected in the online versions.

At the same time, there are also places where state policymakers may simply disagree with our goals behind this project, and hence our reviews of their plans. In comments to EdSource about our review, David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for California State Board of Education, referred to the state’s ESSA plan as “an application for federal funding.” While this is literally true — the plans are required to unlock each state’s share of federal Title I funding — this comment downplays the importance of these plans. We’re not just talking about a a small grant program; Title I is a $15 billion program nationwide and California alone receives about $2 billion a year from it. Title I traces its roots back more than 50 years, and Congress has stated that Title I’s purpose is to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.’’

Those are the reasons we committed to this project in the first place, and it’s why we intend to once again conduct full reviews of all second-round states, including California and New York, following their final submissions in September. We’ll be fully transparent about that process, as we were in round one, and you can look for the results of that work later this fall.

Relationships Matter: How States Can Include Teacher-Student Interaction in ECE and ESSA Plans

This blog post originally appeared at New America as part of the Early Learning and ESSA Blog Series

Pre-k class at the Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, photo by Jocelyn Biggs

Relationships and interactions between teachers and students make a big difference in the classroom. Teacher-child interactions form the cornerstone of children’s academic and social emotional development, especially in early learning classrooms. As states look for ways to measure and improve educational quality beyond test scores, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act provides an opportunity to consider data on teacher-child interactions. Washington, DC, and Louisiana provide two examples of states exploring this promising avenue, with some valuable lessons for their peers who might be considering teacher-child interaction measures, or other non-traditional quality measures that include or emphasize the early years.

So, what should other states take away from DC and Louisiana?

Pick a reliable tool and get to know it well

States, localities, and Head Start grantees are currently using tools designed to reliably measure teacher-child interactions in ECE settings. Both DC and Louisiana use the Classroom Observation Scoring System (CLASS), a well-researched observational tool widely used in early childhood and Pre-K settings, with versions available through high school. Both states took several years to pilot the implementation of this tool to learn more about teacher-child interactions before using it as a quality measure. DC has used CLASS for several years as a citywide Pre-K performance measure in a sample of 3- and 4-year-old classrooms. The DC Public Charter School Board also uses CLASS for Pre-K in its formal Performance Management Framework, the accountability tool for charter schools. Similarly, after the Louisiana Department of Education chose CLASS as a common statewide measure of early learning quality, the state piloted CLASS for several years, working with local early childhood networks to improve local implementation and understanding along the way. Continue reading

Will Educators Lead Incarceration Reform?

Hundreds of thousands of people are released from state or federal prison every year, and nine million more leave local jails.  On the whole, very few people serve life sentences, and at least 95% of prisoners ultimately return home. 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated the last week of April as “National Reentry Week,” an attempt to bring public attention to the challenges facing people who return to their communities after incarceration. It doesn’t look like the Trump administration is upholding the designation — the Department of Justice’s site was archived — but last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unexpectedly visited a youth correctional facility. There she spoke about the role that high-quality education programs play in supporting successful transitions back to community life.

It’s time that educators took the lead in creating substantive policies to support previously incarcerated people as they rejoin their communities. For young people, the move from a secure school back to a community-based program is a crucial moment when students are at risk of losing their earned course credits, experiencing barriers to enrollment, and dropping out entirely. I’ve recently shared data on the importance of this transition. And, for the first time in history, this moment is called out in federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to develop plans to support that transition. And not only is it in the law,  it even made it into the final federal template:

Screenshot via U.S. Department of Education ESSA template.

While this is big, we should also recognize that progress could be bolder; this section will not be evaluated in the official peer review process, and the guidance says simply that it “will be reviewed by staff at the Department.”

And the news coming out of states suggests that they aren’t taking full advantage of this opportunity either. Of the plans submitted so far, most describe goals and strategies for transition plans that are cursory and vague (or both). One describes a committee that is planning to develop a plan. Another gives staffing levels that are woefully insufficient to meet the need — one transition specialist for an entire agency. Almost all describe a lack of good assessment tools to properly track achievement. Of course, doing something is better than nothing. But the problem has rarely been that states are truly doing nothing, it’s that what they are doing doesn’t work. Researchers estimate that upwards of 60 percent of young people who are incarcerated will never successfully return to school.

This opens a unique opportunity for state education advocates to push their education leaders to do more. DeVos’s visit, coupled with the explicit language in ESSA and in the federal template, suggests that this discussion — long relegated to the dusty corners of corrections reform — may have finally, firmly found a foothold in federal education policy.

We Need Real Education Transition Policies for Incarcerated Students

Last month, I gave testimony before the California Senate Education Committee on SB 304, a bill to define the required elements of an education transition plan for a student leaving a juvenile court school and returning to a community-based school. Current California law requires agencies to coordinate a transition plan but doesn’t specify what needs to be in that plan. Some jurisdictions have developed robust policies and practices supporting integrated service provision and continuous care, but many have not, leaving already marginalized students to fend for themselves when their education is disrupted.

The outcomes aren’t good: incarcerated ninth graders may eventually return to school in their communities but within a year of re-enrolling, an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths drop out. After four years, less than fifteen percent of them will complete high school. Aside from hurting these students’ lives and opportunities, this pattern destabilizes communities, creates a drag on our economy, and affects the outcomes for the next generation of young people.

This bill defines the elements of a transition plan, including the most basic expectations like a portfolio of documents that includes current transcripts and results of academic assessments. Conveniently, this bill aligns perfectly with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which now requires states to provide transition plans that assist students moving from correctional facilities to locally operated schools. Continue reading