ESSA: Call to Action

Statement by Kati Haycock, CEO of the Education Trust

As Congress worked to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act last year, The Education Trust served as the hub for a group of nine civil rights, business, and disabilities organizations — and as part of a larger group of 47 civil rights and other equity-focused organizations — working together to beat back bad proposals (like sending less money to the poorest schools and districts) and support the inclusion of strong, equity-focused provisions in the new law, known as ESSA. Almost all of those organizations, together with their state and local affiliates, are now carrying their fight to the states, which have new discretion on a range of matters previously determined by the federal government.

If you really care about grade-level reading, I want to argue as strongly as I can that you can’t afford to sit out the next 15 months of policymaking in your states.

Yes, I know that the prospect of engaging on controversial topics like testing — or arcane topics like the details of school ratings systems — probably makes most of you nauseous. But if we have learned anything from 25 years of policy analysis, it is this: 

  • What (and who) gets measured, ends up mattering.
  • What matters most ends up driving attention, energy, and resources. 

So if you want this thing that you have decided is so important — grade-level reading, especially among poor children and children of color — to matter, you need to jump into the conversations that are probably just beginning in your state, build alliances with others, especially in the civil rights and business communities, who are already engaged, and make sure that you and your allies are educated on the enormously complicated questions that every state will have to decide. 

I could just tell you that our ESSA factsheets are a good place to start educating yourself and leave it at that.

But I know that squeamishness about entering the arena of state policymaking is such a strong deterrent that I want to give you just a few concrete examples of the risks of not doing so.

Let me start with everybody’s least favorite topic: testing. 

The main reason that the civil rights and disabilities communities fought so hard to preserve the federal requirement that all students in grades 3 to 8 be assessed each year, as well as at least once in high school, is so advocates in every state wouldn’t have to.

Many of you may be wondering, though, why organizations that fought so long against test misuse and abuse would fight so hard to keep it. The reason, frankly, is a simple one: because we know that students who are not tested don’t count.

We won that fight: The law is clear that all students need to be tested. In this environment, though, those who believe otherwise have continued their fight through two strategies — opt-outs and “local control of assessment.” 

You know the main idea behind the first one — to render school-level data meaningless by convincing large numbers of parents to opt their children out.

The second one, local control of assessment, is basically a return to the past: If local schools and districts are allowed to choose their own tests, no parent — much less anybody else — will be able to trust the data. 

So I return to my main point: If you want reading to be measured so you can track progress and mobilize help, you can’t sit out this fight.

I know, though, that strong reading test results are by no means the only thing that you care about. 

Because of its relationship with reading success, for example, many of you have been working to reduce chronic absenteeism. Some of you, too, have been working on socio-emotional skills, or on school climate, discipline, and safety. Others may be working on school funding.

All of these are important.

So you will be glad to know that ESSA newly requires lots more reporting on these things and more — including, for the first time, school-level expenditures per student. And the new law also allows states to include in their school ratings systems other indicators of student or school success

There’s a lot about that that sounds exciting.

For example, for those of you who have been working to get schools to be more proactive about chronic absenteeism, making goals for reducing such absenteeism part of the school rating system offers the possibility of increasing the attention, energy, and resources devoted here.

Many of the folks working on disproportionate discipline are also chomping at the bit to include this in the school rating system. 

Parents, too, care a lot about how they and their children are treated at school, so including parent and student surveys could be a great way to elevate the importance of treating parents and students with respect. 

But the devil here is very much in the details because with every addition, there is the risk of less attention to something else. The core risk to your agenda is this: that schools will get their “A’s,” or be otherwise judged as making sufficient progress, if parents are happier (or at least report that they are, and you can imagine how school leaders will pitch that to parents) or students score higher on an assessment of “self-regulation” or “growth mindset,” but there is no improvement whatsoever — even actual declines — in reading achievement. 

And if these issues are tough, the issues surrounding how much importance should be attached to “subgroup” results on any of these things are even more complex, with all of us on the civil rights/disabilities side wanting action whenever any group is not improving for two or more years, and many folks in the education organization side arguing that that “smacks of NCLB’s AYP” and should be opposed at all costs.

So, I know that this all sounds hard and contentious. And believe me, it probably will be. But, at least from my vantage point, the risks to your work of sitting this out are far more severe than getting a little bruised in the battle. 

Read “Summary of Proposed Regulations on Accountability, State Plans, and Data Reporting under ESSA.”

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Ernestine Benedict, Chief Communications Officer

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  • NSLA has been exploring the ways in which ESSA relates to summer learning. We will be holding webinar to discuss our findings on Monday, June 27th at 2pm ET. In conjunction with the webinar we will also release a guide for stakeholders on how to support inclusion of summer learning opportunities during the ESSA planning process at the state level.

    Anyone who is interested in hearing more about how local, state, and national community partners can engage with states and districts during the ESSA implementation planning process and give their input on Titles I, II, III and IV as it relates to summer learning is welcome to join us. You can register here: https://summerlearning.webex.com/summerlearning/onstage/g.php?MTID=....
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