More Of The Same With State ESSA Plan

If it is true that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then it appears the State Board of Education’s planned proposal for following the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has entered the realm of crazy.

Implemented by the Obama administration, ESSA, the federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, was designed to identify and assist the nation’s lowest-performing schools. All states are required to submit a proposal outlining plans to comply with the law, and California submitted its plan last September.

But on Dec. 21, the United States Department of Education rejected California’s proposal after determining that it was incomplete and requested that the State Board of Education submit a revised plan by Jan. 9. Specifically, the DOE took issue with the plan’s failure to address long-term goals for high school students and deemed the state’s method of identifying underperforming schools to be inadequate.

The state wants to use its ever-evolving and oft-maligned California School Dashboard to meet the school identification component of ESSA. The Dashboard is a rating tool intended to provide a well-rounded way to assess school health by placing districts into color-coded performance categories for measures ranging from test scores and school attendance to graduation rates and college and career readiness.

The problem, however, as described by KPCC’s Kyle Stokes, is that “the state's accountability system is not a hand-in-glove fit with ESSA: the state's system identifies the districts in the need of most help, but the federal government requires identifying the schools” in most severe need.
"We're worried that if you only look at districts, you're going to overlook some pretty poor schools," Brian Rivas of the organization Education Trust-West said in public comments reported by KPCC. "We don’t want districts to be able to hide a bad school in the system."

Last Thursday, the State Board voted to send its revised version of the original proposal back to Washington, but to the chagrin of many, it appears largely unchanged from its original version.  There were attempts to make a few small clarifying details requested by the DOE, but according to a report in the Los Angeles Times’ by Joy Resmovits, the revised proposal, “clings to a vision some Board members call the ‘California Way,’ a road map rooted in the unique needs of the state's diverse student body. It doesn't so much address broader federal concerns, but rather aims to justify the state's decisions.”

Carrie Hahnel, Deputy Director of Research and Policy at Education Trust-West told the Los Angeles Times: “We have seen no substantive changes to the ESSA plan. It's clear that California wants to press ahead and is not going to make adjustments because the federal government asked for them.” 

Advocacy group EdVoice was equally scathing in its reaction to the Board’s revised proposal. 

“[Thursday’s] foot dragging on accountability leaves parents and local communities wondering if there will ever be help for teachers and schools so that English learners, students of color and low-income students can graduate, go on to college and get a good paying job,” said Bill Lucia, President of EdVoice. “The federal law requires states to use this extra money to ensure schools provide extra help to disadvantaged students, but the state has shown it isn’t committed to ensuring every student reaches their full potential.”

The Board did seem to acknowledge that its proposal was a work in progress and that, according the Los Angeles Times, “they would revisit the issue and consider submitting a supplement to the plan after their March meeting.”  Still, CBE member Feliza Ortiz-Lincon was the only dissenting voice in terms of pressing forward with the submission to Washington.

“How we plan to hold ourselves accountable for growth and for meeting the state-determined timeline,” Ortiz-Lincon said. “I don’t believe we addressed that in the revisions of the state plan.”

ESSA requires states to begin identifying their low-performing schools this fall. It remains to be seen if California will have an approved system in place by then, but it appears unlikely its most recent revisions, or lack thereof, will pass muster in Washington.  It certainly leads us to wonder what is most important to the state: doing things its own way or putting students first.

-- Michael Sweeney