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Light Touch or Firm Hand: Advocates Debate Proper ESSA Regulatory Approach

One of the biggest debates over the Every Student Succeeds Act is how the U.S. Department of Education and others will handle regulations governing the new law. 

As my co-blogger Alyson Klein wrote earlier this week, there's some disagreement in the education policy world about whether (and to what extent) the Education Department should really flex its muscles when considering and crafting regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act—especially since the bill's authors and backers say it's designed to put more restraints on federal education officials. District advocates are saying the department should tread carefully, but civil rights groups say that regulations should vigorously push states toward greater equity and protections for disadvantaged students.

To discuss these and other ESSA-regulation-related issues, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a guest panel on ESSA implementation Thursday in Washington that was live-streamed. The guests debated a host of topics covering accountability, teacher evaluations, school turnaround methods, and in general the best approach for the regulatory process for ESSA. Below are a few highlights: 

'Just Because You Can...'

Christy Wolfe, the senior policy advisor for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that while regulations may provide states with a certain degree of clarity, it might also be helpful for the Education Department to follow up with strong guidance to provide states more information as they build their accountability systems to match ESSA's requirements.

She told the panel that it would be a lot harder for the department to change a regulation after it's approved than to update accountability guidance for states. (Wolfe used to work at the Education Department.)

Noelle Ellerson, an associate executive director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, also urged restraint by the Education Department when it comes to the reach and scope of potential regulations. But she added negotiating the right regulatory path could get complicated for the department, saying, "I don't envy the task ahead for Mr. King," referring to John King, who's currently filling the duties of deputy secretary and slated to take over as acting secretary once Secretary Arne Duncan departs.  (Ellerson was also quoted in Alyson's blog post from Wednesday.)

Looking ahead, Ellerson also said that 2016-17 should be treated by school leaders as a "soft launch" year for policy shifts they'd like to begin under ESSA, with 2017-18 being the first "full" ESSA year.

But regulations that are too vague or loose could lead to a situation where states are essentially in the same boat many of them were in during No Child Left Behind Act waivers, said Claire Voorhees, the director of K-12 reform at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. In that scenario, under ESSA, states will have to continuously check with the department about what plans would comply with the law's regulations.

"They have a constitutional responsibility to explain to states what these things mean," Voorhees said of Education Department leaders.

Uncertainty for Teacher Evaluations

Voorhees said that while ESSA may have removed any federal power over states' teacher evaluations, it's not necessarily smart for states to rush to dump the evaluation systems they have, advising states, "Don't over-react right now." 

She also suggested that if folks began to dismantle their teacher-evaluation systems, they may find that they may unintentionally trigger a broader range of debates and disputes about other related policies, such as general testing policies or the Common Core State Standards.

"When you pull that string, what other things will unravel or be strengthened?" Voorhees asked.

But Michael Petrilli, Fordham's president and the panel moderator, disagreed, stating that if states were ready to dismantle teacher evaluations they didn't particularly like, they should move quickly to do so.

Either way, Ellerson said to expect a lot of activity at the state level regarding teacher evaluation next year, with state lawmakers' desires potentially running into requirements under NCLB waivers.

Terra Incognita for Accountability

Petrilli predicted a large number of fights in states over how to handle ESSA's required accountability indicator that deals with non-academic and non-cognitive measures, such as student engagement.

Speaking to that point, Voorhees said she hoped that states would act wisely and not push the department into heavy regulation over which indicators are used and to what extent they count for accountability. For example, she warned that if states rely on suspension and expulsion rates in accountability under ESSA, states will have an incentive to keep those rates down and potentially damage schools' learning environment in the process.

And Ellerson warned that not all non-cognitive and non-academic issues are created equal, with some having more validity behind them than others. She did add that superintendents in her organization have expressed interest in all of the similar accountability meaures being used by districts in the California Office to Reform Education (known as CORE).


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