As states cement education plans for their schools under the federal K-12 law, the Department of Education is working furiously to assess them amid mounting concerns about states’ commitment to following the law, their proposals to ensure historically disadvantaged students have access to quality education, and the department’s capacity – and in some cases, lack of desire – to police it all.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, gives states new flexibility to create accountability systems that suit their unique needs. Those plans must be vetted and cleared by the Department of Education before states begin implementing them in the near future.
The process has been somewhat tumultuous, triggering concern from across the education spectrum about how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and department officials would review each submission.
So far, the department’s feedback to states has irked Republicans, whose goal is to ensure states have as much flexibility as possible when devising their education plans. At the same time, it’s vexed Democrats, who argue Obama-era regulations informing state education officials of exactly how they are supposed to implement the new law should not have been eliminated.
With the review process now coming to an end, some are increasingly concerned about the substance of the plans and the department’s approval process.
“Secretary DeVos and her department are blatantly violating the current K-12 law we updated two years ago – they won’t follow the very statutory language this committee settled on,” Sen. Patty Murray, top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in opening remarks during an unrelated hearing on higher education held Nov. 28.
Murray said she was particularly peeved by states ignoring a key part of the law requires them to identify three distinct categories of schools for improvement: the bottom 5 percent of schools, all schools where one subgroup of students is consistently underperforming, and schools where any subgroup is performing as poorly as the bottom 5 percent.
“But plans are being approved that violate this,” she said. “If the department is ignoring the agreement we made in the law and just choosing to implement whatever it feels like – which I believe they are in their approval of state plans so far – then this committee needs to hear from the secretary about how she intends to follow the laws that Congress agrees to.”
Those sentiments were echoed in a recent review of the state plans from The Education Trust, a Washington-based civil rights education group, which found states are flouting their equity responsibilities with lackluster proposals that fail to identify and fix low-performing schools, specifically for schools that serve lots of low-income students, students of color and other historically disadvantaged groups.
“What we found is not encouraging,” researchers at the Education Trust wrote in the executive summary. “For all the lip-service given to the importance of equity in ESSA, too many state leaders have taken a pass on clearly naming and acting on schools’ underperformance for traditionally underserved students.”
Their biggest critiques of the plans were twofold: that most states base their school ratings on the average academic achievement of all students, which researchers at Education Trust argue can mask the underperformance for certain groups of students, like students of color, and that many states set a low bar for enforcing the improvement of certain groups of students in schools identified as lowest performing in the state.
One of the most comprehensive reviews comes from the Collaborative for Student Success and Bellwether Education Partners, which convened a large group of 45 peer reviewers from all education and philosophical bents. Those reviewers also took issue with many of the states’ plans, finding that overall, the plans were “uncreative, unambitious, unclear or unfinished.”
“It’s possible that states may go back and bolster their plans over time, but it does not inspire confidence that states chose not to submit plans that advanced educational opportunities in bold and innovative ways for all students,” the reviewers wrote.
While DeVos has approved the education plans for 15 states and the District of Columbia, she’s held other states’ feet to the fire – though not as closely as Democrats, civil rights groups and other education policy wonks dedicated to accountability issues would like.
DeVos approved her home state of Michigan’s education plan, for example, only after telling state education officials there that their original submission was missing major pieces, including a plan for how it expected low-performing schools to improve academically.
And for those states still awaiting approvals, department officials blasted off a litany of requests for more information and alterations in letters sent in late December to 31 states and Puerto Rico.
The department came back at Maryland, for example, with a long to-do list. Among other things, the plan lacked academic achievement goals for high school students, officials said, left out important details about how it plans to calculate academic growth as well as identify its lowest-performing schools, and provided no information on how it will address the unique needs of migratory children.
Officials slammed California’s plan for its lack of clarity around how it plans to improve low-performing schools and ensure high-quality teachers are working in schools with lots of low-income students, as well as for its new system for assessing the performance of schools, which is presented in a color-coded dashboard that includes so much information that many have deemed it confusing.
The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board praised the Education Department for its assessment of the state plan, writing in an op-ed last week, “The question isn’t so much why California’s school-improvement plan was sent back to the state for some major fixes, but why officials ever thought it had a chance of passing muster with the U.S. Department of Education.”
“This is more like a non-accountability system than a plan for producing a better-educated population,” the board wrote.
Some applications included obvious violations of the law. In Florida, for example, where 1 in 10 students is still learning English, the plan doesn’t include those students’ language proficiency in its school grading system. New Hampshire, meanwhile, makes no mentionof a state law that prevents the it from requiring school districts to administer an annual statewide exam in grades 3 through 8 – even though that’s required under the federal law.
One of the most common gripes from the department: Each indicator that goes into a state’s assessment of school performance – such as test scores or graduation rates – is required by law to be broken out by student subgroups so that parents can see, for example, how white students perform compared to black students or Latino students, or how students with disabilities or those still learning English are performing compared to their peers.
“I’m glad the department is calling them on that and not letting them skirt it,” says Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who previously worked in the Education Department under the Obama administration as a senior education policy adviser. “Granted, this is just the initial volley back from the department to states. There will be continued back and forth and negotiation and you never know what they will ultimately demand for approval.”
Hyslop, who also served as one of the peer reviewers for the Bellwether and Collaborative review, recently penned an analysis of the department’s approval process, titled, “Betsy DeVos and the Soft Bigotry of Low ESSA Expectations,” which takes the secretary to task for a “trust and don’t bother to verify attitude” that shows the Trump administration “simply doesn’t care” about compliance with the law.
With a federally mandated 120-day approval clock ticking, most states have until the end of Jan. 8 to revise and resubmit their plans, after which the Education Department will have a short window to re-review and either approve or deny those plans.
Hyslop says she’s “heartened” by the flurry of requests from the Education Department for more information, which were released just days after her analysis was published.
“But I’m also trying to be realistic that states may not fully change their systems and instead try to do the minimal amount required by law,” she says.