Implementing ESSA: 10 Critical Questions for States

03/08/2016
  • Blog
ESSA31Late last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a comprehensive rewrite of the five-decade old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bipartisan effort was applauded by many in the education community for, among other things, shifting more responsibility to states and school districts to influence policies around accountability, teacher and leader effectiveness, school turnarounds, and more. At the same time, there are a number of details that still need ironed out before ESSA takes effect, as was evident in the more than 200 comments that the U.S. Department of Education received from education groups about the bill in January. 

Following are 10 critical questions for states to consider as they prepare for full implementation of ESSA in the 2017‒2018 school year. 

1. What standards will states adopt?
ESSA requires states to adopt “challenging academic content standards” in math, reading or language arts, and science that align with credit-bearing coursework in the state’s higher education system. The bill does not mandate any particular set of standards. Details about this section of the law are still being worked out through the regulatory process, but whether states choose to keep and evolve their existing standards or develop new ones, it’s critical that all stakeholders are involved in this process. 

2. What assessments will states give students?
ESSA maintains the requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act that states test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. In science, districts must test students at least once in grades 3 through 5, grades 6 through 9, and grades 10 through 12. However, the bill prohibits the federal government from specifying any other aspect of assessments. In fact, districts may let high schools use a nationally recognized test—such as the ACT or SAT—for accountability purposes. And ESSA creates an “innovative local assessment” pilot project, allowing up to seven states or consortia of states to try out new kinds of tests, such as performance assessments, with the goals of eventually taking them statewide. 

3. Will states make adjustments to their teacher and principal evaluation systems?
ESSA prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring states to develop or implement a teacher, principal, or other school leader evaluation system. Whether states choose to preserve or reform their current evaluation system, how will they ensure teachers and leaders are getting feedback that supports professional growth and student learning?

4. How will funding be distributed to impact students most in need?
While ESSA only authorizes and doesn’t appropriate any money, the bill does create more flexibility in how states and school districts can use federal funds—particularly Title I dollars—to help economically disadvantaged students. The new law also creates a pilot program that will let up to 50 districts combine federal, state, and local funding with the purpose of better directing that money to low-income students and others with specific needs, including English language learners. In addition, ESSA changes the Title II funding formula to direct more dollars to states that have large populations of students living in poverty. 

5. How will states design their accountability plans?
ESSA requires states to develop accountability plans that annually measure student performance on state assessments, include performance goals for subgroups of students and determine at least “one other indicator of school quality or student success,” such as student engagement, student access to and completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness, school climate, and safety. Beyond that, the bill gives states discretion in setting academic goals, deciding what to hold districts and schools accountable for, and determining what weight to assign each indicator in the accountability system. As state education leaders work to develop their accountability plans, consider:  
  • How will the state involve key stakeholders—including superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and policymakers—in developing the plan?
  • How does the plan align with the state’s larger educational-improvement goals?
  • How will the process be communicated?
  • What other measures might be included in the plan, and why?
  • How will the state help districts and schools improve? 
Accountability measures must be designed and thoughtfully implemented to illuminate a pathway to improvement, writes BFK's Jamie Meade. Read more.

6. What strategies will states and districts implement to more effectively recruit, develop, and retain teachers and leaders, particularly in high-needs schools?  
Through Title II, ESSA encourages districts and states to pursue a variety of strategies to improve educator effectiveness—particularly for low-income and minority students—including:  
  • Recruiting, hiring, and retaining effective educators;
  • Improving teacher and leader preparation programs;
  • Providing high-quality, personalized professional development; and
  • Supporting alternative certification programs for teachers, principals, or other school leaders.
The new law also creates the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program—formerly the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF)—which awards grants to help districts and states strengthen their talent management systems. 

BFK’s Paul Cynkar shares five steps to help school leaders not only address challenges with recruiting and retaining educators, but also strengthen organizational health to ensure staff are engaged and supported throughout their career. Read more.

7. What strategies are states going to use to support improvement in their lowest-performing schools? 

ESSA requires states to take action to improve their lowest-performing five percent of schools, as well as high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent or where one or more subgroups of students is underperforming. However, in a departure from the Obama Administration’s School Improvement Grant program, the bill gives state education leaders flexibility to choose what “evidence-based” strategies to use in these schools. ESSA directs states to use seven percent of Title I funds for school improvement activities. 

Explore five promising practices mined from Battelle for Kids' work with some of the highest-performing districts and schools across Ohio. Read more

8. How might the increased flexibility under the ESSA support innovation at the state and local level?
 
The reduced federal role in K-12 education under ESSA is being touted by some as an opportunity for states and districts to explore innovative ideas for moving education forward. Where do those opportunities exist, and how might they be implemented? While the Investing in Innovation (i3) program does not appear in ESSA, some observers are describing the new Education Innovation and Research grant program as the next generation of i3. It would award grants to school districts, state departments of education, and others to scale “entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations” to improve student achievement. Of note, the bill requires the U.S. Secretary of Education to award no less than 25 percent of those funds in each fiscal year to programs that impact rural school districts or a consortium of rural districts. 

9. How will states support districts in providing “well-rounded educational experiences” for all students?
ESSA creates a new Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant to help states, school districts, and communities provide all students with access to well-rounded educational opportunities, including high-quality STEM courses, music and the arts, foreign languages, programs that support volunteerism and community involvement, and more. 

10. How will states build awareness, engagement, and support among all stakeholders to successfully implement new policies and programs under ESSA?
Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Education Committee, said recently about ESSA, “A law that is not properly implemented is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” All the conversation about getting the policy right under ESSA will be for naught if state and district education leaders aren’t prepared to implement the new law. States need to engage multiple stakeholders to develop a comprehensive implementation plan that helps translate ESSA policy into meaningful practice in schools. Read Battelle for Kids’ lessons learned about leading and navigating change in schools. 

As states lead and navigate change in the ESSA era, it’s important to remember the old adage, “Sometimes you need to go slow to go fast.” A thoughtful, strategic approach to implementation is critical to build understanding and support, and ensure that change sticks. We offer these questions as a foundation for state leaders to engage key stakeholders in conversations about the new law and develop a path forward focused on the success of all educators and students.