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ESSA’s Flaws Exposed as Betsy DeVos Assesses State Plans

July 8, 2017

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have long held misgivings about ESSA… and Erica Green’s article in yesterday’s NY Times flags some deficiencies that surprised advocates, deficiencies that I did not foresee in my earlier critiques.

Many conservatives believed that ESSA was going to provide more flexibility to States in terms of oversight by the federal government. But the early analyses by the USDOE under Betsy DeVos’ leadership indicates that will NOT be the case. Their response to Delaware’s state plan is exhibit one:

In one case, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Jason Botel, wrote to the State of Delaware that its long-term goals for student achievement were not “ambitious.”

It is mind-boggling that the department could decide that it’s going to challenge them on what’s ambitious,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush. He called the letter “directly in opposition to the rhetoric and the promises of DeVos.”

But USDOE’s assessment of Connecticut’s plan flags a concern of progressive educators, who hoped that State’s might be able to break away from the strait-jacket of standardized testing.

The state was also criticized for its use of an alternative system for measuring academic performance instead of more standard “proficiency” measurements on state tests, as the law requires.

Such feedback signaled that the department “appears to be resorting to very traditional and narrow ways of interpreting student and school performance,” said Laura Stefon, chief of staff for the Connecticut State Department of Education.

So after being hailed as a bi-partisan bill that satisfied both sides of the aisle, why has ESSA riled up those on both sides of the education debate? One chief state officer offers a cynical explanation:

Christopher Ruszkowski, the acting secretary for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said the idea that the new law would yield total state control was merely “rhetoric from the Beltway.”

I think a lot of the euphoria over return to local control was an overpromise,” he said. “What this signals is that U.S.D.E. will continue to play the role they’ve always played in the years ahead.”

In addition to alienating policy-makers in both the “reform” and progressive camps when it comes to testing, ESSA has riled us another group: the National Science Teachers Association. Why?

Connecticut was also among a handful of states faulted for including science as a subject for measuring achievement, even though the law allows the use only of reading and math. This feedback was widely criticized by academic groups, including the National Science Teachers Association, who said the department was interpreting the law too literally.

The science teachers, like the teachers of any content outside of reading and math, experienced staffing challenges as school districts were forced to teach-to-the-test in order to meet “ambitious” goals required under NCLB and RTTT. They, like the state and local leaders of schools and the state legislators, were led to believe that ESSA would enable their states to develop accountability systems that would incorporate their topics. In the end, as Mr. Green notes in her closing paragraphs, the consensus seems to be that ESSA DID over-promise and under-deliver:

State leaders said they believed they were all but promised their plans would be approved. Instead, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said some aspects of the Education Department’s feedback were “overzealous” and could undermine community involvement.

“It’s going to be really hard for a state to go back and say, ‘I know I told you we were doing all of this, but we’re going to change it because the federal government told us not to,’” Mr. Minnich said.

There was bi-partisan support for this bill when it passed. I fear that there will NOT be a bi-partisan acceptance for the responsibility of the bill’s deficiencies… and know that in the end the children who will suffer the most are those being raised in poverty.

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