Ohio Listens and Delays Its ESSA Plan
Making good on a promise to heed public input, Ohio’s top education official announced last week that he would delay submitting a federally-required education plan.
“The submission of the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) response should be an event that unites us,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria wrote in an open letter explaining the delay. “In recent weeks, we've heard from stakeholders who feel their input was not reflected in the ESSA template.”
The announcement was met with a sigh of relief from those who were critical of the state's plan. In rare bipartisan fashion, state officials, educators and lawmakers from across the political spectrum agreed that a delay was in the state's best interest. Part of the reason was the state's unprecedented outreach for public input. And the public didn't disappoint.
Going “Above and Beyond” for Stakeholder Outreach
In all, more than 15,000 Ohioans provided feedback on the state's ESSA implementation plan: about 3,100 people participated in webinars; more than 1,500 people attended meetings with Philanthropy Ohio, a statewide charity network; Ohio Department of Education (ODE) staff participated in more than 70 meetings and presentation; and there were more than 11,000 responses to an online survey.
“The [Ohio education] department went above and beyond what they often do in terms of stakeholder engagement,” said Lisa Gray, project director for the Philanthropy Ohio Education Initiative, which directed ten engagement sessions across the state last year. Philanthropy Ohio also published a white paper on that engagement, which was just one part of the state’s outreach plan.
“We met with anybody and everybody who wanted to talk to use about this,” said Chris Woolard, Executive Director for Accountability at the state education department.
Ohio’s outreach efforts caught the attention of Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University who commended the department for its actions.
The Plan’s Purpose: Strategic Vision or Technical Exercise?
Drafted by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democrat president in December 2015, ESSA was hailed as one of the few bipartisan successes of Barack Obama’s presidency. Republicans supported the legislation because it returns a large chunk of authority back to the states and local districts; Democrats backed the bill because it moves away from the standardized testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.
But before states can act on the law, they are required to submit an implementation plan. State officials were required to gather input from a wide range of stakeholders, including parents, business leaders and educators, and were given two deadlines for submission: April 3 and September 18. The law requires that Gov. John Kasich be given 30 days to review it so any changes must be wrapped up by early August.
Ohio originally intended to meet the April deadline, after which federal officials would have four months to provide comments and suggestions or to accept the plan outright. However, after releasing a draft of the plan ODE officials began receiving vocal criticisms that the plan focused on technical matters to the exclusion of strategic goals. The criticisms raised a central question: Is the purpose of the plan to fulfill a federal requirement or provide a grander framework for students, parents, and teachers?
To meet federal requirements, the state’s plan addresses standards, assessments, teacher evaluations and accountability and improvement systems designed to measure district and school performance and target those that are struggling. The draft overview available to the public broke down each major component into three sections: what ESSA requires; what public feedback indicated; and the state’s proposed response for how to meet requirements based on what Ohioans want.
Kay Wait, an instructional planner in Toledo who has also taught elementary and middle schoolers, was disappointed when she saw what the state planned to submit. She participated in one of the Ohio Philanthropy listening sessions and criticized officials’ focus on technical items.
“I saw slides of the plan and kept thinking, ‘You’re kidding. Where are the changes?” said Wait. “ESSA is offering an opportunity for states to envision what they education should look like instead of education just fitting a plan. The draft looked like what they’re following from Race to the Top.”
Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the state’s largest educator union with 20,000 members, took a more balanced view.
“I commend the department for doing that amount of outreach, but it wasn’t really a discussion about the direction of education,” stated Cropper. “We would have preferred a discussion about what has worked well in our system and where do we see some challenges. Instead of asking questions about what has not gone well, what do we want to see different, where are the gaps, it was too focused on technical things.”
However, both Gray and Woolard stressed that critics did not understand that the ESSA plan and the state's broader vision are two separate items.
“There’s been a misconception about what ESSA is and what it isn’t,” said Woolard of the Department of Education. “It’s not wiping the slate clean on education reform. What ESSA requires is a similar framework to No Child Left Behind, but ESSA creates the opportunity to have the much larger conversation [about a vision]. That’s not part of the state’s plan because it’s not supposed to be. The actual plan we have to submit is a technical document.”
But some believe that a strategic vision can be part of the ESSA plan, including being part of the submission.
“Don’t be a lemming and just go along with the way [the federal law] was written,” admonished Jim Lloyd, superintendent of the Olmsted Falls School District in northeast Ohio. “Pushback on the feds to say, ‘We need more time.’ We should put forth a plan that says, ‘These are our structures.’ If the federal government wants local governments to take control of their education, why wouldn’t they provide us the kind of control we need to get it right?”
Thorny Issues Remain Unresolved
As officials collected feedback, questions emerged about the role of testing, teacher evaluations and accountability, along with detailed technical considerations, such as how large do student subgroups need to be in order to find an accurate representation of progress among minority students or those with disabilities.
DeMaria, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction who has been on the job since June, announced the formation of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Assessments that will consider the volume of tests students are required to take and how best to provide meaningful data to educators. Officials will also continue working with the Educator Standards Board for recommendations on revamping the teacher evaluation system.
At a recent hearing before the Ohio Joint Oversight Committee, Lloyd said that the majority of speakers called on ODE to delay submitting their plan and to reduce the amount of mandated tests students take. In his opinion, statewide assessments are akin to looking in a rearview mirror; they’re only good for telling you where you’ve been. However, many fear that the state will maintain what’s seen as an overwhelming amount of testing that goes above what is required at the federal level.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do and a lot of policy work to be done,” Lloyd said. “That shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Is it better to check off a box and send it in? Or is it better to get it right? From my perspective, it’s better to get it right.”
It appears that these criticisms resonated. Ohio will spend the next several months addressing these issues in the hopes of presenting a unified and cohesive plan come September.
Jessica R. Towhey is a contributor to RealClearEducation.