Assessing state ESSA plans: Innovation or retreat? 

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to give states opportunities to innovate, but the first stages of implementation proved to be rocky. 

 

The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 was greeted with two divergent views about how states would respond to their newfound flexibility from NCLB-era mandates. The optimistic view was that states would use their increased authority to enact innovative policies that would experiment with different approaches to school improvement that were better matched with local conditions and needs. The pessimistic view was that states would use their discretion to retreat from the pursuit of greater educational equity and struggle to muster the political will or administrative capacity necessary to address persistent racial and socio-economic achievement gaps (Robinson, 2018). Joanne Weiss and I examined these hopes and fears in a May 2016 article for Phi Delta Kappan (“States as change agents under ESSA”). Three years later — and two years after ESSA went into effect — we can begin to assess how the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has managed the approval process for state accountability plans, examine how state plans are shaping up as a result of their newfound flexibility, and highlight implementation challenges that have emerged.  

The federal role in schools 

The enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 initiated an intense national debate over educational federalism and the proper role of the national government in school reform. The prescriptiveness of the law — and the George W. Bush administration’s energetic implementation of it — was criticized for being inconsistent with the country’s tradition of local control and states’ rights in education. The use of the Race to the Top competitive grant program and NCLB waivers to push states to adopt its preferred reform approaches was similarly criticized during Barack Obama’s administration. At the same time, however, both administrations’ aggressive use of federal power received praise from many civil rights and anti-poverty groups who believed it was necessary to get states to address longstanding racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps (Orfield, 2016).  

Many observers thought that NCLB’s replacement — ESSA — had delivered a resounding victory to the local control view and heralded a new era of declining federal influence over schools. Upon its passage, when asked about the future of the federal role in education, Sen. Lamar Alexander (the law’s chief architect) remarked: “I think it will be very different. Everybody was really fed up with Washington telling 100,000 public schools so much about what to do and it was really creating a backlash” (Klein, 2015). 

The election of a Republican Congress and President Donald Trump in 2016 seemed to cement this view even more. With the notable exception of the George W. Bush administration, the Republican Party has traditionally been committed to states’ rights and local control in education, a position that Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, reiterated early in their time in office. This position, combined with ESSA’s legislative language limiting the power of the DOE, created the expectation that states would be given wide leeway with their ESSA plans. In March 2017, the Republican Congress (in a move supported by DeVos) overturned the detailed regulations that the Obama DOE had created to guide state implementation of ESSA. Conservatives believed that the regulations were too extensive and ran counter to the desire to return flexibility to the states. The move gave states greater discretion in the crafting of their accountability plans but also — a year into the state ESSA planning process — less clarity about what they needed to include to be approved. Local control proponents were reassured by DeVos’ 2017 remarks that she wanted “to ensure that regulations . . . provide the state and local flexibility that Congress intended, and do not impose unnecessary burdens.”  An analysis of the DOE’s implementation of ESSA over the past two years, however, indicates that the reality of educational federalism today remains complicated. 

The reality of the approval process 

Many observers were surprised when the DOE released its first feedback on state plans (for Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico) in June 2017. The feedback and guidance were extensive and, in a number of cases, requested clarifications or revisions to be made before approval. As the New York Times noted, “DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hardline approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike” (Green, 2017). Delaware’s plan, for example, was criticized for not having ambitious enough goals for raising student proficiency, and the state was directed to revise its plan.  

States were forced to create ESSA plans with little guidance.

What explains the apparent disconnect between DeVos’ local control rhetoric and her department’s assertive position on state plans? Ironically, the elimination of the detailed Obama regulations and their replacement with the looser DeVos rules may be significantly to blame, as states were forced to create ESSA plans with little guidance. In one example of this lack of clarity, ESSA contains statutory language requiring that state plans be “ambitious,” but neither the law nor the DOE regulations define what that means. Ultimately, DOE staff (along with a panel of peer reviewers) apparently decided that key elements of many state plans did not meet that standard.  

In 2017, Chris Minnich, then the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), raised concerns about the department’s actions, noting that “states have built systems to improve educational opportunities for kids and the Department’s feedback is too prescriptive in certain areas and goes beyond the intent of the law” (Klein, 2017). However, Christopher Ruszkowski, the acting secretary of education in New Mexico, observed that expectations of a return to local control under ESSA had been overblown and merely reflected “rhetoric from the Beltway.” “I think,” he said, “a lot of the euphoria over return to local control was an overpromise. What this signals is that the [DOE] will continue to play the role they’ve always played in the years ahead” (Green, 2017). 

Whatever the DOE’s standards were going to be, state education associations (SEAs) continued to need guidance on how to draft and submit acceptable plans. However, turnover and a reduction in staff at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education — estimated at 14% during the first two years of the Trump administration — led many SEA requests for guidance to go unheeded for weeks or months (Klein, 2019b). And the federal capacity challenge was compounded by the problem of inadequate SEA capacity (which Joanne Weiss and I raised in our earlier Kappan article), and this combination appears to have constrained many states’ ability to craft comprehensive or innovative ESSA plans.  

Sara Dahill-Brown (2018), too, has observed that a “lack of attention to capacity has dogged the planning process under ESSA.” She noted that while more than half of SEAs reported a substantial increase in workload during the first year of ESSA planning, only one SEA indicated that it had adequate capacity to meet all ESSA requirements. As a result, despite the flexibility that ESSA gave states to design new accountability systems, most state plans were not very innovative or ambitious. A 2017 Bellwether Advisors report concluded that “states were not taking full advantage of the opportunities ESSA presented. Instead, with few exceptions . . . state ESSA plans [were] mostly uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished.” (Aldeman et al., 2017) 

Despite the considerable criticism unleashed after its response to the first three state plans, DOE continued to scrutinize subsequent state plans. Florida, for example, initially proposed to keep its existing A to F rating system, which didn’t rate schools on the proficiency of English language learners or disaggregate the performance of student subgroups (both ESSA requirements). California’s plan, meanwhile, was initially sent back for revision because its proposed school rating system used a color-coded dashboard but did not give each school an overall score and thus could not identify the bottom 5% of schools as ESSA requires. The department rebuked Connecticut for not defining what it meant by “consistently underperforming” student groups in schools. In addition, states struggled with the reporting and dissemination of accountability data. An analysis by the Data Quality Campaign found that as of March 2019 only five states had complied with ESSA’s requirement that detailed spending figures be published on a school-by-school basis (Ujifusa, 2019). The DeVos DOE’s lack of guidance — combined with its unexpectedly strict review of state plans — clearly presented a conundrum for SEAs during the ESSA planning process. 

Weighing in on state plans 

In a March 2018 speech to the CCSSO, DeVos criticized states for the many ways their ESSA plans had fallen short. She told them that state accountability systems were too complex, that state ideas for school improvement were uncreative, that states were not focusing enough on supporting students directly, that state testing systems were outdated and weak, and that states were not doing enough to ensure that education funds were spent wisely and equitably (Hyslop, 2018). Her rebuke noted that: 

ESSA was enacted . . . to give you the flexibility and opportunity to address your state’s unique challenges. This law gives you that chance. The trouble [is], I don’t see much evidence that you’ve yet seized it . . . Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. (Green, 2018a)  

The right-of-center Fordham Institute agreed with the criticisms of state plans but blamed the federal government. It observed that: 

rather than the panacea many hoped for, state ESSA plans became federal compliance forms. And although there is undoubtedly good policy included in the plans, no one should place their hopes for an equitable, future-ready education system solely in a compliance exercise. Every state needs more creativity and vision than that limited exercise allowed states . . . Governors’ pursuit of a better education system for all students doesn’t end with federal approval of their state plans. To ensure the student success touted in ESSA’s title, states must go beyond the “bare minimum.” (Parker, 2018) 

Interestingly, at least nine governors — including seven Republicans — agreed with the DeVos and Fordham criticisms of their own state plans. Nathan Deal (R-GA) remarked that his state plan “does not take full advantage of the opportunities for flexibility and innovation, nor does it set adequately high expectations for Georgia’s students.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker criticized his state’s plan as just “bureaucratic paperwork” that “does little to challenge the status quo.” And Larry Hogan, Maryland’s governor, called his state plan a “farce” in part because it failed to specify what steps the state would take if significant numbers of schools failed to improve; the state plan answered only “N/A” in this section (Green, 2018b). 

These governors’ criticisms were buttressed by several civil rights organizations and think tanks, which did their own independent analyses of state ESSA plans. The left-leaning Center for American Progress concluded that DeVos “put students at risk by deregulating education” and in particular by “attempting to de-emphasize the federal government’s role in oversight of education funding; eliminating key student protections; and weakening accountability for school and college performance” (Jimenez & Flores, 2019). The Alliance for Excellent Education similarly warned that “too many states minimize student subgroup performance in their ESSA accountability systems” (All4Ed, 2018), while a November 2018 review by the Collaborative for Student Success found that equity was not prioritized in half of the 17 states they analyzed and that many states were not taking their new oversight responsibilities seriously (Ross, 2018). (In this issue of Kappan, Lance Fusarelli and Jennifer Ayscue discuss in detail some of the ways states have failed to prioritize equity.) 

Researchers Megan Duff and Priscilla Wohlstetter (2019) have conducted the most in-depth analysis of the communication between DOE and state education agencies during the ESSA approval process. After the controversial first round of feedback, the department opted to add a two-hour telephone call with SEAs that would enable a dialogue about the state’s plan before public feedback, and this did indeed reduce the amount of feedback and revisions states had to manage. The researchers note that DOE’s feedback on state plans was of two types: requests for additional information and identification of violations where state plans appeared in conflict with the federal law. More than half of the feedback states received focused on Title I, and most of that in turn dealt with the ESSA provisions on school accountability and improvement. States received far more feedback about insufficient information than violations, but still, 77 Title I violations (total) were identified for the 16 states that had submitted plans as of April 2017. 

While a few of the 16 states Duff and Wohlstetter (2019) studied complied with all of the federal feedback they received, most did not, as nearly all “ignored or pushed back against some . . . feedback in their final plans — asserting their own power in the interpretation and implementation of the law” (p. 8). Even after states responded to DOE’s requests for additional information, many important technical details about how state plans will operate in practice remain unclear — a fact that could make compliance monitoring difficult in the future.  

Five of the 16 early submitter states successfully defended their “violations,” and many observers noted that the approval process appeared to become more lenient over time. In the end, the ESSA plans of all 50 states were approved despite the unresolved concerns among many education reformers that most state plans are not ambitious or detailed enough in their proposals to improve educational excellence or equity. Duff and Wohlstetter (2019) conclude their study by noting “while the law itself grants states increased flexibility in some areas, USED’s approval of all plans, even those that contradict the law, suggest the current administration may be granting even more power to states than the law prescribes.”  The early implementation of ESSA by the DeVos DOE has thus been somewhat bipolar — at first it was aggressive, even to the point of contradicting the states’-rights intent of the law; then, under political fire, the department backed off, perhaps even bending over so far in the opposite direction as to give states more flexibility than required. 

How states are shifting 

What policy changes have states made using this new flexibility? Under ESSA, states must continue to assess students annually but are given broader latitude to use alternative assessments rather than the annual end-of-year standardized tests required under NCLB. The quest to have states adopt a common test aligned to the Common Core State Standards made considerable progress under the Obama administration, with 45 states adopting the PARCC and SBAC assessments. This effort has faltered since the passage of ESSA; today, only 12 states use SBAC, and only 3 planned to administer PARCC in the 2019-20 school year. Many see the demise of common national assessments as an unfortunate development because it will make cross-state comparisons of student performance more difficult. Others, however, say they believe that ESSA will facilitate experimentation with new kinds of assessments that can provide more valid and useful information about student learning. New Hampshire, for example, has used a federal waiver to develop “interactive, performance-based, teacher-designed assessments in math, reading, and science,” while Louisiana has adopted an interdisciplinary approach in a humanities pilot that combines language arts and social studies and assesses students throughout the school year rather than only once at the end of the year (O’Keefe & Lewis, 2019). In July 2019, Georgia and North Carolina were also granted testing flexibility. 

In addition, as required by ESSA, states are broadening their accountability systems beyond NCLB’s focus on reading and math, adding measures related to science achievement, student attendance, college and career readiness, progress toward high school completion, and school climate (Klein, 2019a). In addition, the majority of state plans include measures of student academic growth from year to year rather than the single year-end summative assessments used under NCLB. New Mexico has required that districts and schools use its new NM-DASH (Data, Accountability, Sustainability, and High Achievement) system, which has been highlighted as a promising approach to integrating data and systems that have historically been siloed (Ross, 2018). A number of states have also embraced a “continuous improvement model” in which student performance data are constantly collected and analyzed and used to target resources and interventions. Vermont, for example, now requires schools and districts to submit continuous improvement plans that incorporate both quantitative data such as test scores and graduation rates and qualitative data from a new system of school quality reviews conducted by outside educators in neighboring districts (Klein, 2018). 

Eventually, as noted above, all 50 states’ ESSA plans were ultimately approved by DOE even though many were criticized for being inadequately ambitious or innovative (or both). However, the implementation of ESSA has only just begun, and it is far too early to predict how state plans will evolve or what the law’s ultimate impact on state education systems will be over the long term. Not surprisingly given their differing philosophical views on the appropriate federal role in education, congressional Republicans have criticized the DOE for being too heavy-handed in their review of state plans, while Democrats have criticized the department for being a rubber stamp that fails to hold states accountable.  

Ever since the passage of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, periods of federal activism in education have been followed by periods of retrenchment (McGuinn, 2016). Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration, recently remarked that she found the implementation of ESSA “depressing,” adding that “the pressure is too great at the local level not to have that ballast of the federal government saying, ‘We mean it. We’re serious about accountability.’” She also predicted that the political pendulum around the federal role is likely to shift again, with calls for a return to greater federal activism because “that’s our history, isn’t it?” For now, the federal and state agencies will continue to navigate their complicated relationship as states work to implement their plans and DOE engages in compliance monitoring. States will submit the inevitable requests for modifications and federal waivers until the pendulum swings again and a new set of rules — or perhaps a new administration — is in place. Despite varying ideological views on the proper role of the federal government in education, those in power are generally inclined to use it, and states’ propensity to under-serve poor and minority students will always provide an invitation for intervention.

 

References 

Aldeman, C., Hyslop, A., Marchitello, M., Scheiss, J.O., Pennington, K. (2017). An independent review of ESSA state plans. Sudbury, MA: Bellwether Education Partners.  

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2018, December 14). Too many states minimize student subgroup performance in ESSA accountability systems. Washington, DC: Author.  

Dahill-Brown, S. (2018, November 16). Why the path ahead is uncertain for state education agencies [Blog post]. Rick Hess Straight up at Education Week. https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2018/11/what_we_do_and_dont_know_about_seas_future.html 

DeVos, B. (2017, March 13). Letter on Every Student Succeeds Act state templates. Washington, DC: Department of Education.  

Duff, M. & Wohlstetter, P. (2019). Negotiating intergovernmental relations under ESSA. Education Researcher, 20 (10), 1-13. 

Green, E. (2017, July 7). DeVos’ hard line on new education law surprises states. New York Times. 

Green, E. (2018a, March 9). After demanding local control, DeVos finds that it limits her influence. New York Times. 

Green, E. (2018b, February 11). As DeVos approves education plans, she finds skeptics in G.O.P. governors. New York Times. 

Hyslop, A. (2018, April 18). ESSA analysis: Betsy DeVos set the rules for states’ new education plans, so why is she blaming local leaders for following them? The 74. 

Jimenez, L. & Flores, A. (2019, May 30). 3 ways DeVos has put students at risk by deregulating education. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. 

Klein, A. (2015, December 17). Alexander: federal role on K-12 will be ‘very different’ under ESSA,” Education Week. 

Klein, A. (2017, June 16). DeVos feedback on education plans defies federal law’s intent, state leaders say [Blog post]. Politics K-12 at Education Week. https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2017/06/devos_ESSA_feedback_federal_law_state_leaders.html  

Klein, A. (2018, May 8). ‘Continuous improvement’ model woven into state ESSA plans. Education Week. 

Klein, A. (2019a, April 2). States, districts tackle the tough work of making ESSA a reality. Education Week. 

Klein, A. (2019b, February 27). What does a shrinking education department mean for states and vulnerable students [Blog post]. Politics K-12 at Education Week.  

McGuinn, P. (2016). From No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act: Federalism and the education legacy of the Obama administration.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 46 (3), 392–415. 

O’Keefe, B. & Lewis, B. (2019) The state of assessment: A look forward on innovation in state testing systems. Sudbury, MA: Bellwether Education Partners. 

Orfield, G. (2016) A great federal retreat: The Every Student Succeeds Act. Education Law and Policy Review, 3, 273-297. 

Parker, S. (2018, April 3). An answer to ESSA plan shortcomings: State solutions [Blog post]. Flypaper at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  

Robinson, K.J. (2018). Restructuring the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s approach to equity. Minnesota Law Review, 103, 915-998. 

Ross, L. (2018). ESSA and school improvement: Promise to practice. Alexandria, VA: Collaborative for Student Success. 

Ujifusa, A. (2019, April 2). Hitting ESSA’s elusive targets on school accountability.” Education Week. 

Weiss, J. & McGuinn, P. (2016). States as Change Agents under ESSA. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (8), 28-33. 

 

Citation: McGuinn, P. (2019, Sept. 23). Assessing state ESSA plans: Innovation or retreat? Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (2), 8-13.

PATRICK McGUINN (pmcguinn@drew.edu) is professor of political science and education at Drew University, Madison, N.J., and a senior research specialist for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), Philadelphia, Pa. 

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