ESSA regs point to new conflict over federal accountability role

ESSA regs point to new conflict over federal accountability role

(District of Columbia) Newly proposed regulations governing implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act would require states to adopt strategies for supporting low-performing schools from a long list of interventions not contemplated in the law itself.

In what may prove another sticking point between the Obama administration and Congressional leaders over the interpretation of ESSA, the U.S. Department of Education wants management of school turnaround to include incentives for recruiting and training effective teachers, redesigned instructional time, early warning indicator systems and methods for replacing school staff.

The proposed regulations, which were released late last week in advance of a 60-day public comment period, are focused primarily on the parts of ESSA that deal with accountability and performance. Regulations covering other parts of the law are expected to be out in the coming weeks.

The battle for control over the spirit and intent of the legislation is already a heated one. The department’s initial  release of regulations addressing the issue of supplanting federal funds drew a sharp rebuke from key lawmakers including Sen. Lemar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate’s education committee and a primary architect of ESSA.

In the past, federal law prevented schools and states from using money provided by Congress for services that were already being provided with state and local funds. Alexander, among others, have insisted that ESSA diminishes the role that the Education Department can play in regulating state spending decisions.

The regulation proposed by the department would require districts to show that per-pupil spending in schools receiving Title I money is equal to that provided to non-Title I schools. Alexander argued the regulation was an over-reach and has threatened to cut funding to the department if the regulation isn’t amended.

There might be a similar reaction to how the department interprets its role in school turnaround.

The law calls on states to develop an improvement plan that is aimed at all students; includes evidence-level interventions; is based on a needs assessment; and is approved by the school, the local board and the state.

The new regulations gets far more detailed in what types of intervention must be used, calling for “one or more” including:

  • “increasing access to effective teachers or adopting incentives to recruit and retain effective teachers;
  • increasing or redesigning instructional time;
  • interventions based on data from early warning indicator systems;
  • reorganizing the school to implement a new instructional model;
  • strategies designed to increase diversity by attracting and retaining students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds;
  • replacing school leadership; in the case of an elementary school, increasing access to high-quality preschool;
  • converting the school to a public charter school; changing school governance; closing the school; and, in the case of a public charter school, revoking or non-renewing the school’s charter by its authorized public chartering agency consistent with State charter school law) to improve student outcomes in the school….”

The level of direction suggested by the department in this specific regulation may invite further criticism from Congressional leaders,  especially since the basic motivation with passing ESSA was to remove the unworkable accountability mandates set up under its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

ESSA, signed by President Barack Obama in December, eliminated the entire federal government’s role in arbitrating the performance of schools and meting out sanctions on those that failed. Under the new law states have been given wide discretion to build their own accountability systems and define performance goals.

Other highlights from the proposed regulations:

Participation: ESSA requires that schools must test at least 95 percent of their students, including all individual subgroups.

Although the proposed regulations do not explicitly state how to address schools that dip below that 95 percent threshold, it is expected that each state will create thorough strategies to address opt-outs. The regulations suggest assigning lower summative ratings to schools with low participation rates, identifying them for targeted support or assigning them the lowest performance level on the State's Academic Achievement indicator.

School climate: One aspect of ESSA that has been hailed by student and teacher advocacy groups is its call to include non-academic indicators such as school climate or student engagement as part of the overall accountability system.

Worth noting, however, is despite the department’s decision not to mandate the weights of any indicator, there is an expectation that academic indicators outweigh non-academic indicators. Additionally, a school labeled in need of targeted support cannot exit that category if performance on academic indicators is low, despite potentially high performance in non-academic areas.

Subgroup determination: For accountability purposes, ESSA does not allow subgroups such as English learners, foster youth or students with special needs to be calculated together as one large group as was common under NCLB waivers.

Instead, under the proposed regulations, subgroups could be individually deemed as consistently underperforming when that group of students is not on track to meet the state's long-term goals; is performing well below the average performance among all students or the highest-performing subgroup; or is performing at the lowest level on at least one indicator such as statewide science assessments for two years.

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