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There are lots of interesting ways to tell the story of ESSA this fall. Don’t get left behind!

By Alexander Russo

Mainstream news coverage of ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) so far has been skimpy & superficial, given how important the new federal education law is going to be in coming years.

But there’s still more than enough time for education reporters and editors to grab hold of the story.

Revisions and approvals to state plans are going to be a big education story this fall, along with in-state debate about how to turn approved plans into reality. And, as you’ll see, there are lots of easy and smart ways to cover ESSA (despite its scary-long state plans and slow timelines).

The following sections will help you get started, hone in on what’s most important, figure out storytelling tricks, and give you some specific storylines you (and your editors) might like.

GET YOURSELF STARTED

EXPERTS STANDING BY

Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have already submitted their implementation plans to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), which has given preliminary responses to many states and has now approved several of those plans. Come September, all of the states will have submitted draft ESSA proposals.

For help figuring out state plans, reporters can look at the plans themselves, talk to state-based associations, advocates, or union leaders, or contact national outfits like the Alliance for Excellent Education, Fordham, the AFT, or the Education Trust. There are also a number of stories and resources specifically designed for education journalists that you can find from the Education Writers Association (EWA) here. The organization, which supports education journalists, held a whole event focused on ESSA last October.

You don’t have to become an ESSA expert. You just have to call them.

CRIB FROM TRADE PUBLICATIONS

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Trade press coverage of ESSA has been strong and steady for much of the past year. Skim the sometimes-wonky stories from EdWeek, EdSource, the 74, or any number of other niche sites and turn them into something that everyday parents and teachers might be interested in reading.

There’s nothing wrong with modeling your coverage after strong stories produced by other outlets in other parts of the country. Just remember to throw them a link for their hard work.

FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS TO KIDS AND PARENTS

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ESSA: WHAT’S THAT?

States are required under ESSA to do extensive outside consulting about their plans, including “teachers, principals, other school leaders, charter school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, administrators, other staff, and parents.” And yet anecdotal reports suggest that many states didn’t mount a particularly robust or effective effort.

Ask some teachers and administrators if they know anything about the law, or chat with some parents dropping their kids off early in the year. If they don’t, ask your state why not – and what it’s going to do about it?

COMPLIANT? LOGICAL?

There are two main things to find out about your state’s ESSA plan that really matter for kids, according to Phillip Lovell, VP for Policy Development and Government Relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

First are whether your state is meeting the specific statutory requirements in the law. Relatively flexible as it is, ESSA does contain some very specific requirements that states aren’t supposed to fudge – even if the USDE appears to be letting them do so.

Just as important, according to Lovell and others, is for reporters to make sure that state plans make sense from a logical perspective. “States can be compliant, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the system is actually logical,” Lovell notes.

For example, in the A-F letter grade school ratings systems that states are proposing , does an “A” rating “really mean what a typical parent or member of the public would think an ‘A’ should mean?” Some states have proposed systems that could give A’s to schools with subgroup graduation rates in the 60s and 70s, or to schools with low-performing subgroups. This happened before ESSA and could continue under the new law. “That doesn’t pass the smell test,” says Lovell.

Not sure whether your state’s plan complies with the statute or passes the smell test? Call Lovell or anyone else from the organizations listed above.

Pro tip: Look at independent peer review comments on state plans for additional insights.

TESTING

States vary enormously in how much weight they plan to give annual tests in determining a school’s overall performance. Where does your state fit in, and what are the likely consequences of adding or lessening the weight of tests on school report cards? Are this year’s A and B schools likely to turn into C and D schools? Are this year’s D and F schools magically going to turn into A and B schools?

How the tests get used also varies widely in terms of how much states break out student test scores by subgroups of different kinds of kids, according to Lovell. “That’s a big deal that will really matter for kids,” says Lovell.

Some states set it up so that subgroup performance on tests really does matter. Other states aren’t so aggressive.

PARTICIPATION

ESSA sets a floor of 95 percent for student participation on annual state tests, but the USDE “appears to be ignoring this [participation] requirement,” according to Lovell. If too many kids opt out, the tests aren’t valid and the kids whose scores aren’t included aren’t part of the feedback-accountability loop. How are states addressing it in their plans? “Some states are not doing this or doing this with very little consequences attached,” says Lovell, and the USDE isn’t paying much attention.

Whatever you do, be sure to cover the participation issue as more than just a concern of middle-class white parents, reminds the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights’ Liz King. The participation requirement is an effort to ensure that marginalized students aren’t ignored (and to ensure that school districts couldn’t encourage their lowest performing students to take the day off school).

CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM IS THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

Chronic absences are going to be a big new part of what many schools measure under ESSA, and how they’re rated. “Every state that has submitted a plan so far has added — or plans to add — at least one additional measure,” notes Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum. “The most popular has been chronic absenteeism.”

But how is attendance going to be tracked and transmitted? What is “chronic”? Recent Washington Post coverage found that some District of Columbia schools weren’t recording suspensions and expulsions the way that they were supposed to, in order to comply with district mandates to reduce them. Could the same happen with attendance data?

STORYTELLING TRICKS

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HOOK, THEN GO DEEPER

It’s totally fine to use an announcement or a response as a news hook for your ESSA story, but don’t make the bureaucratic back-and-forth all that you cover. Use those arguments as the entry point for delving into the plans and what they mean for parents and kids, say Chiefs for Change’s Margie Yeager and other advocates working on the implementation process. Focus on things like school ratings and interventions that are likely to be most important to them.

FOCUS IN ON A DISTRICT, SCHOOL, OR (KIND OF) KID

There’s no better way to make jargon and bureaucratic procedures real than to focus in on a real, live district, school, teacher, or student and illustrate how the law might affect them. Will the district receive more or less funding? Will the school have to do anything differently than it has in the past? Will the teacher have to get more training? Will the immigrant, special education, or other disadvantaged student get more or different services?

Want to get fancy? Compare two different schools, districts, teachers, or students.

INTERSTATE RIVALRIES

Pretty much every state has a rival state it likes to disparage and/or compare itself to. Californians hate Texans (and vice versa). New Jerseyans hate New Yorkers (and vice versa). So why not make constructive use of the rivalry by highlighting your state’s ESSA plan with another state? Is your state’s report card system stronger or weaker than its rival’s? How about its plan for improving teacher effectiveness or intervening in struggling schools?

Sure, it’s cheesy, but it might get your editor’s interest and readers’ attention. You can find quick summaries of state plans developed by the Alliance for Excellent Education and Bellwether Education Partners/Collaborative for Student Success.

‘SA AND THE SUBURBS

While ESSA coverage sometimes can seem like it’s overly concerned with white teachers, middle-class parents and their stressed-out kids, it’s important to remember that ESSA isn’t just focused on low-performing urban schools. The law will also affect middle class and suburban schools where overall achievement may seem fine but subgroups – English language learners, for example – aren’t getting the services they need.

What are those middle-class, higher-achieving schools going to do to meet the requirements of the new law? Nobody’s really covered that yet.

CONNECT THE DOTS

Whether you’re a local/regional reporter who thinks readers appreciate the bigger picture or a national reporter trying to deepen her/his coverage, there are lots of ways to connect ESSA to real life. Some starter questions: How will low-income students take AP exams now that the federal government no longer provides federal funding specifically for that purpose? How will teacher and student lives be affected by the evolution from state- and consortium-designed tests to the ACT and SAT? How many states are reducing testing time – and by how much?

SPECIFIC STORYLINES

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STATE-LEVEL WINDFALL

State education departments are going to be in charge of a much bigger pot of funding than they have been in the past – but it’s not entirely clear how well they’re going to spend the money. “Seven percent of Title I, that’s a billion dollars,” says Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman. “Any reporter in any state could grab onto the question of states’ plan for spending that additional money.”

KIDS LEARNING ENGLISH

One great way to look at the law would be through the eyes of a kid or family whose home language isn’t English. One of the most potentially far-reaching elements ESSA requires is an indicator showing how schools are doing education English language learners (ELLs). Is the state’s ELL measure meaningful? Is its definition of who is considered ELL going to change? What new or different is being proposed to help ELL students meet the same standards as other kids?

WHAT ABOUT THE TEACHERS?

Another important and easy way to make your ESSA coverage stand out is to focus on the human beings put in charge of classrooms – something most parents and even the most casual reader can care about. There are big, largely-unexplored provisions of the state plans focusing on the law’s educator equity requirements. Need some help? National Council on Teacher Quality analyzed 17 states’ plans.

Pro tip: Don’t get sucked into the teacher shortage story.

HOW MANY SCHOOLS? HOW MUCH MONEY?

There are lots of basic questions that you can answer for readers that might not be on the front page of your state’s website. How many more (or fewer) under-performing schools would likely be identified under the state’s new plan, using available data? How much more (or less) money would they receive?

States may try and avoid answering these kinds of questions, pointing to new tests, new measures, and new calculations, but some will have come up with estimates and projections they will share if asked (or FOIA’d), and it will be useful to readers to explain what information is and isn’t available.

CAVEAT REPORTER

With ESSA as with most things in education, it’s easy to get pulled into the jargon. Don’t do it. A part of Hechinger’s Liz Willen dies every time an education reporter falls into jargonese. It’s also easy to get distracted by ongoing battles that aren’t really related to ESSA but are part of larger debates. Education funding? Teacher shortages? I’d advise against going there. But if your editor insists, ask hard questions about how issues are really connected to ESSA.

Media coverage of ESSA makes a difference. It was in part through media inquiries that Michigan officials realized that they had not submitted a complete version of their ESSA state plan to the USDE. Media coverage helped reveal that the new law ended AP subsidies for low-income kids.

I’ve got a feeling that there are other similar attention-grabbing stories to break, once reporters like you take a closer look.