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Chiefs to Feds: Renew ESEA Soon or Help Us Innovate

If Congress doesn't move on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, states are poised to get going on their own ideas on accountability and other areas. And they want Congress (and the administration) to have their backs, according to a letter sent to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, education lawmakers, and party leaders on Capitol Hill by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The letter makes it clear that CCSSO's first choice is an honest-to-goodness reauthorization, this year, that builds on state-level work on K-12 redesign. But if that doesn't happen, CCSSO has a ready-made Plan B for the feds: Congress and the administration should support state leaders in their efforts to make changes that will help the current ESEA law work better for their states.

If reauthorization doesn't happen soon, chiefs are planning to "propose new, innovative policy models in terms of accountability and other areas that move beyond [the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the current version of the ESEA], and we urge the administration and Congress to encourage and support this strategy—so that the current law doesn't become a further barrier to innovation and achievement," the letter says.

It also makes it clear that CCSSO wants to see the feds run with these state-led innovations, instead of making the sort of "discrete fixes" other organizations have called for in asking for regulatory relief from NCLB.

CCSSO says states would rather propose their own, holistic ideas for revamping accountability systems and get the department to sign off on them. In fact, CCSSO is leading a task force of chiefs to help figure out what "next generation" accountability systems should look like.

The chiefs say their new-and-improved plans would keep in place core parts of the NCLB law, including basing accountability on student outcomes (including the current state assessment schedule and progress on grad rates) and disaggregation of data by subgroups (such as racial minorities and students in special education.)

And they also will have their accountability plans work towards college- and career-readiness, and focus interventions on the lowest-performing schools, plus identify top performers.

Beyond that, states may also propose other ideas, such as plans for transitioning between NCLB and these new accountability systems. For instance, they might ask the department to let schools stay in their current accountability status while the state transitions to the new assessments and new models.

The letter, signed by CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit, concludes:

"This state-led approach to revising NCLB implementation could be a model for ESEA reauthorization and could be managed much like the prior NCLB 'accountability plans,' but with far greater focus on state innovation, evaluation, and continuous improvement."

The letter doesn't say this, but I can't help thinking about those Close-But-No-Cigar Race to the Top plans that some states already have sitting on their shelves. It seems to me that giving the "loser states" some flexibility on parts of NCLB if they implement parts of their Race to the Top proposals might be in line with what CCSSO is asking for here.

The letter also reiterates CCSSO's ESEA priorities, which in a nutshell, call for keeping accountability while ramping up flexibility and building state capacity to improve foundering schools and measure student progress towards college- and career-readiness.

And just in case the feds aren't up on their education news, the letter points out that states have already lead the way on some big, recent changes, including the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the Race to the Top assessment program, data systems, growth models, and new teacher and principal evaluation systems. They also mention more accurate, uniform graduation rates (which some folks would argue they shouldn't be bragging about.)

CCSSO has always been an important group, but it may be even more prominent this year since both parties are (at least rhetorically) all about empowering states.

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