Planning for ESSA Shows State Shortcomings
Turnover at the top levels of state government and a lack of relational infrastructure appear to be hampering some states in their efforts to develop plans to comply with the new federal law governing American education.
Both Indiana and West Virginia recently welcomed new state education superintendents. Officials in both states claim that repairing relationships with educators and other stakeholders is a top priority for the incoming chiefs, and officials from each state have expressed confidence they would meet federal submission rules under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, the turnover, along with questions about what previous office-holders had done to advance school accountability and student performance measures, have put the two states into a precarious position regarding the looming federal deadline.
“I was extremely frustrated with the previous administration,” said Indiana Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican who chairs the State House Committee on Education. “They were doing what I would call listening tours but not engaging people at a level they should have been engaged.”
The former chair of the West Virginia State Senate Education Committee had similar concerns in his state.
“The transparency on what was happening in the new plan was not there,” said Sen. Robert Plymale, a Democrat who remains a member of the education committee.
The “plan” refers to a lengthy and technical document each state must provide to the U.S. Department of Education detailing how it will meet requirements of ESSA. The law, a bipartisan bill that lifts the heavy hand of the federal government from education and turns a large chunk of power over to states, seeks to ensure that schools are accountable, student progress and growth are accurately measured and that federal dollars are being spent appropriately. The law also requires states to engage a broad group of stakeholders. A handful of states submitted plans in April, and those plans are currently under federal review. The rest are working to meet a September deadline.
Priscilla Wohlstetter, Distinguished Research Professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University, observed that states that successfully competed for federal dollars and also adopted and implemented higher academic standards without devolving into political infighting have been able to develop regional networks and management information systems to make the ESSA process operate more smoothly.
However, both West Virginia and Indiana have struggled in recent years to stick with one set of academic benchmarks, raising concerns about the quality of education and whether students are properly prepared for college or career. Neither state was successful in a federal funding competition against other states.
“[Other states] are skipping all those steps of planning and figuring out how things work because they already have the infrastructure in place,” Wohlstetter said.
Indiana and West Virginia appear to still be at the drawing board – at least publicly.
New Administration for Hoosiers Playing Catch Up
In November, Dr. Jennifer McCormick defeated Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz to become the new state education chief. A former special education teacher, she previously served as superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, a small school district in central Indiana. McCormick’s victory came as part of the Republican electoral sweep of statewide offices and not everyone is pleased with McCormick’s approach to ESSA.
The Indiana State Teachers Association is certainly a critic. President Teresa Meredith remarks that Ritz, the defeated incumbent, was a “true classroom teacher” whereas McCormick was an administrator in a “small, rural district” and is still learning how things work at the state level.
“It’s very fair to put us in the laggard category,” Meredith said when asked to characterize the state’s progress. “They’re just now getting started with community meetings for input. We’re hoping that it will be a quality plan but that has yet to be seen. The previous superintendent had a plan and was ready to roll with that but we don’t know if the current superintendent has reviewed that plan and is moving forward or is throwing it out and doing her own or even something in the middle. We just don’t know.”
Molly Deuberry, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that one of McCormick’s first priorities upon taking office was to get moving on community engagement. Similar to Behning's complaint, Deuberry said the previous administration held meetings in which people were given just a few minutes to express concerns and desires for the direction of the state’s education system.
“This is an urgent priority for the department,” Deuberry said. “We know that we’re up against a clock and we’re working daily. There are large groups of stakeholders that the state hasn’t done a lot of engagement with. We’re reconnecting with people and getting community input.”
Still, Indiana remains on a compressed timeline for the amount of work that needs to be done to develop a high-quality ESSA plan. Some states that met the April deadline spent several months gathering public input and hosting forums versus the two months Indiana will spend.
Once the public meetings wrap up later this week, state officials – led by education department Director of Policy Patrick McAlister – will spend May and June writing the plan and seeking public comment on the draft. They intend to present the plan to the State Board of Education on July 12 and to Gov. Eric Holcomb for his review by August 15. The plan is due to federal officials on September 18.
“We are definitely behind the eight-ball starting off,” Behning said. “We will start getting concerned if we don’t have [a draft] by August, but I do think we’ll get to where we need to be by the deadline.”
Out With the Old, and, Er, in With the Old in West Virginia
In West Virginia, the new superintendent has been on the job for about four weeks. Dr. Steve Paine is the fifth education chief in a decade, which is reflective of the turmoil the state has undergone trying to assess schools and improve student performance. But Paine has held the job before, and that is giving some stakeholders a boost of confidence, especially given the upheaval in the state’s education environment since he left.
During that time, a new accountability measure put in place in November that would have given A-F grades based largely on standardized test scores has already been jettisoned by the state education board. The state legislature has also been wrestling with academic standards, adopting one set of benchmarks in 2010 but scrapping them two years ago. The state is also moving away from assessments that were aligned with academic standards – tests they had only recently started giving to students.
Despite the outward appearance of chaos, state education department Chief Accountability Officer Michele Blatt said such activity over the last few years has actually helped the state build out community networks.
“We did a great deal of stakeholder engagement early in 2015 and 2016 around standards, assessments and accountability,” she said. “We went through our normal policy revisions and standards development process to develop career-ready and college-ready standards. We were ahead of schedule of meeting all the requirements [for ESSA] but now we have changes. We have done a lot, but maybe we haven’t communicated it very well.”
That’s an assessment with which the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers would agree.
“They’re doing a wait-and-see version,” said Rosemary Jenkins, AFT-WV director of Field Services. “There has been discussion but it was only an update. We’re waiting but we have not seen anything.”
Republican Delegate Paul Espinosa, who chairs the state House Education Committee, said bringing in a new superintendent was a chance to reset the process. Paine served as the state’s superintendent from 2005-2011 and many expect that he understands the need to better communicate with stakeholders and legislators. Legislators aren’t leaving that to chance, though. There is legislation awaiting Gov. Jim Justice’s signature which makes clear that the State Board of Education and the state Department of Education are to engage with the legislature regarding standards and assessments.
“It certainly is of concern not knowing where we are in the process,” Espinosa said. “Other states seem to be further ahead and certainly that’s important to discuss. We have an opportunity here to make sure that we are, in fact, doing the proper outreach so that we can avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve found ourselves in in the past.”
However, education department officials expressed confidence that they will make the September deadline to submit their ESSA plan to the federal government.
Jessica R. Towhey is a contributor to RealClearEducation.