Discussion: (0 comments)
There are no comments available.
The details of Every Student Succeeds Act plans may be less important than how they're created.
Reviewing states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans has become a cottage industry pumping out mostly negative assessments. States, we’re told, are doing too little on the teacher-quality and equity fronts. Overall, the plans are mostly “uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished.” One analyst went so far as to say the plans inspire little confidence that states are prepared for the education law’s promise of more autonomy.
These evaluations have value. They generally aim to answer a germane question, something along the lines of, “Are states’ plans responsive to the reporting rules and policy preferences of the federal law?” For example, the review conducted by my excellent former colleagues at Bellwether Education Partners tried to answer whether state plans had set bold goals, used indicators tied to student learning, prioritized student achievement and academic growth, and more. This is important information, especially if a state ran afoul of the law.
But I believe such reviews, though necessary, are insufficient. The most obvious reason is that it isn’t clear that the production of a responsive plan will translate into the results we want. States developed plans under No Child Left Behind, the federal School Improvement Grant program, and the Race to the Top provisions related to teacher evaluation. And yet national reading scores didn’t move much under NCLB; a federal evaluation of School Improvement Grants showed the program produced no measurable gains in test scores, graduation rates, or college attendance; and research suggests educator-evaluation reform did little to identify more ineffective teachers.
But there is a bigger issue that goes to the heart of the Every Student Succeeds Act: Perhaps the details of the plans are less important than the process by which the plans were created. The educaton law was largely premised on the view that states hadn’t made more progress during the NCLB era because the federal government had been so directive. Uncle Sam dictated how states set goals, how schools should be rated, and which school interventions should be applied. Part of the new law’s theory is that improvement would flow from states’ repossessing the authority to deliberate and decide on key issues. State leaders would not only develop solutions tailored to their particular contexts, they’d do so in a way that generates a collective sense of ownership over strategies and results. Therefore, state leaders wouldn’t undermine reforms forced on them; they’d get behind the reforms they created. They wouldn’t blame outsiders when things went wrong; they’d fix them.
As such, two different things seem to be missing from current reviews. The first relates to this formative nature of the process. States reopened and re-litigated the essential debates of education policy: What makes for a good school? How should that be measured? What strategies should we employ? A state’s gritty work to independently answer these questions might not be revealed in its responses on a federal form. But it might contribute to the state’s future success through a better understanding of families’ aspirations, how schools function, and the role of state policy.
Similarly, reviews primarily used outsiders as judges. This obviously provides a valuable level of objectivity. But the Every Student Succeeds Act wanted state leaders to labor through this unglamorous process, develop a sense of ownership of the work, and make their own decisions about the relative importance of college-readiness, career and technical education, school climate and much more. If we believe a great Alabama plan is different than a great Alaska or Arizona plan, our reviews should incorporate the views of those who shaped the plans. Ideally, we’d learn whether the process enabled states to craft the plans they needed; at minimum, we’d learn why certain challenges proved so difficult and which areas of reported progress were actually genuine.
The second thing missing from the reviews is adequate recognition that the development of these plans was, if undertaken seriously, necessarily slow-going, intense, messy, and sprinkled with inconclusive answers. Such is the nature of deliberating fundamental issues across stakeholders of different minds. But the very things that seem to most frustrate outside assessors — that states are taking so long, that boxes haven’t been filled out correctly, that decisions are still foggy, that the compromises aren’t inspiring — aren’t evidence of failure. They’re proof that states are working through the toughest school policies around.
One of the costs of the last 15 years of overbearing federal policy is that it distorted Washington’s understanding of the complexities of state education policymaking. Across the two previous administrations, Washington made big decisions about reading and math tests, school-rating categories, school improvement strategies and more. States had to fall in line. But such dictates didn’t make fundamental differences of opinion disappear; it pushed them underground. With states re-empowered, we must reacclimate ourselves to their valuable, if untidy, deliberative processes.
For the last several years, I’ve seen this work firsthand as a member and president of a state board of education. If asked, I suspect most state leaders responsible for these plans would talk about the countless hours spent discussing growth scores, graduation requirements and non-academic indicators of school success; the public meetings from one end of the state to another; months of work sessions with education stakeholders; dozens of extended state-board meetings; breakfasts with local board members; lunches with district superintendents; coffee with various legislators and staff; phone calls with the governors office; and on and on.
These things are impossible to score with a rubric. And the hard lessons, uneasy agreements, and unresolved tensions they produce may very well appear to those on the outside as “uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished.” But they may well also be collaborative, wise, prudent, flexible, robust and genuine. It seems to me any fulsome review of the Every Student Succeeds Act should give due consideration to the processes that lead to such worthwhile results.
There are no comments available.
The latest from AEI Education Policy scholars
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2018 American Enterprise Institute