ESSA, Martin Luther King and Accountability: Will the New York State Plan Address Fiscal Inequalities?

Learn baby learn, earn baby earn.” Martin Luther King, 1967

Early this morning I donned my winter bike gear and pushed off, a light snow had fallen; it was crisp, really crisp, with the rising sun low in the eastern sky; a glorious morning to greet Martin Luther King’s birthday.

I spent last night listening to MLK speeches; I had never listened to his 1967 speech to the students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia entitled, “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” Take fifteen minutes and listen to the speech here – it is as relevant today as it was a half century ago.

A year ago we were jubilant, a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act promised a new era, the end of the notorious “test and punish” No Child Left Behind.” The new law returned to the states the power to set education policy within broad guidelines set by feds.

Tomorrow the Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos, who has spent her career and political dollars, with considerable success, opening unregulated charter schools in Michigan. Her vision of education is a return to the pre-Brown v Board of Education days, a voucher system that would return to schools segregated by race, class and parental income; a repudiation of the essence of King’s life work. A few days later the inauguration of Trump: dark clouds hover over our nation.

ESSA, our new education law, passed Congress with wide support across party lines, a rare example of truly bipartisan legislation. As the regulations have been promulgated the fifty states have begun to craft their required accountability plans: the essence of the new law. New York State, after a slow start is fully engaged drafting the plan.

A simple question: How will the plan impact the lives of classroom teachers and students?

We currently live in a world driven by annual English and Mathematics tests in grades 3-8 and exit exams in high school. The unintended consequence was to create a narrow, rigid “test and punish” system. For superintendents and principals the goal was “proficiency:” how many students scored in the proficient realm.

School resources were targeted to kids “approaching proficiency” and ignored kids far below or far above proficiency. The Arts, physical education, school counselors, psychologists, nurses, and enrichment programs fell victim to the targeting of resources to a narrow band of students. Race to the Top dangled dollars if states fully implemented the Common Core State Standards and, New York State was the first state to both fully implement the CCSS and move to Common Core tests.  Standards are not a curriculum, they are skills; while curriculum is the responsibility of the school district the State produced Curriculum Modules on their Engage NY site;  modules that were adopted by schools districts around the State. Since the state produced the tests and the modules it would be foolish not to adopt the modules regardless of what you thought of them.

ESSA allows states to decide how to define accountability, and the change can drive education in a different direction: it all depends upon the New York State plan.

The state can decide to move from proficiency, a score on a test, to growth, comparing scores over time.

A few examples: a new principal came into a very low achieving school, the students made impressive progress, no one cared, and the school was still below proficient. What was he doing differently? What organizational and/or instructional changes had taken place?  The school was below proficient; the school district was only interested in high achieving schools. Another school had a steady flow of new immigrants, scores were very low; however, the kids in school a few years were doing quite well, the students were below proficient; that’s all that mattered.

Under a growth accountability system, or a combination of proficiency and growth, both schools would receive recognition for their hard work.

This year the Commissioner and the Regents have had a laser focus on educating themselves, reaching out to all constituencies and collaboratively creating an ESSA accountability plan.

Each meeting of the Board of Regents has been a learning experience – experts from across the nation presenting ideas, warning about pitfalls, describing what other states are doing and making a range of suggestions.

Check out the presentations, high quality Power Points below:

ESSA Law Explained: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/accountability/essa.html

ESSA State Plan Development Activities (10/16): https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/ESSA.pdf

SED High Level Concepts for Draft Plan (10/16): http://www.nysed.gov/news/2016/state-education-department-proposes-high-level-concepts-draft-every-student-succeeds-act

Linda Darling-Hammond Papers on ESSA (4/16): https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/pathways-new-accountability-through-every-student-succeeds-act

Michael Cohen, Achieve, College and Career Readiness, Equity and ESSA (11/16); http://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/Full%20Board%20Monday%20PM%20-%20MCohen.pdf

Scott Marion: Opportunities and Challenges in the Design of ESSA Accountability Systems (12/16): https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/FB%20-%20Monday%20ESSA%20Assessment%20and%20Accountability%20for%20RegentsSMarion.pdf

Update on the Development of a State ESSA Accountability Plan (12/16): https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/FB%20Monday%20-%20ESSA%20Commissioner.pdf

Linda-Darling Hammond Presentation at the Jan, 2017 Board of Regents Meeting: https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/FB%20Tuesday%20-%20Building%20an%20Accountability%20System.pdf

All the presenters suggested moving away from proficiency only, to multiple measures, called a dashboard, a range of indicators to both define and measure “success.”  In other words, you have to define accountability before you can measure accountability. Yes, the law requires annual grades 3-8 tests; however, the law does not proscribe or define a test. Some states are exploring performance tasks or portfolios of student work; a complex path: how do you assure inter rater reliability? Should the five regents exams be the only path to a diploma? Should we substitute AP exams? Industry certifications in CTE areas?

Other states are exploring the dashboard concept: in addition to proficiency and growth using attendance, parent and student surveys, as well as other possible questions: Can we “measure” non-cognitive behaviors? Should resilience in post-secondary education impact a school?  Should English language learners in their first few years and some students with disabilities be “measured” differently than all other students?

When the dust clears, the State ESSA plan will define accountability and identify the bottom five percent for intervention. This is NOT Lake Woebegone where all children are above average.

In her slide deck Linda Darling-Hammond reached that moment of truth: describing “Support for Intervention.”

* Teams of expert educators trained to work with struggling schools.

* School pairs and networks for learning.

* Content collaboratives/ subject matter projects

* Trained curriculum coaches.

* Wraparound services including extended learning after school and in the summer.

* School redesign initiatives based on research and best practices.

I don’t want to be discouraging – haven’t we been doing some or all of the above?  Does school and district leadership have the capacity to carry out the supports described, and, a question asked by a number of Board members: equity. Where do schools and school districts get the funds to carry out the interventions?  Vice Chancellor Brown asked if the issue of equity can be included in an ESSA plan. Linda Darling-Hammond gave a hesitant “yes.”

Should plans acknowledge that kids don’t start from the same place and by continuing a pattern of extreme inequality in funding aren’t we exacerbating inequality and undermining any plan?

Fifty years after the MLK speech referenced above we are still asking kids to compete on unequal grounds.

High potential; however, a long complex path; can the Commissioner require schools and teachers, who have the ultimate responsibility to enact the new law,  to move forward without an even funding playing field?

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