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How Will Peer Review for ESSA Plans Work Under the Trump Administration?

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Next Monday, states will begin officially submitting their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act to the U.S. Department of Education. And then comes the, umm ... fun part. Those plans will be examined through a wonky-but-important process known as "peer review," in which a team of educators and experts essentially takes a close look at a state's vision, to see if it complies with the law. 

On Tuesday, the Education Department—now controlled by Team Trump—released guidance spelling out exactly what those reviewers should be looking forFile this under technical-but-good-to-know: The guidance only covers "Title I" (the main section of the law that includes accountability, school improvement, testing, and more), Title III (the portion of the law that deals with English-language learners), and the portion that deals with homeless students. The other programs in the law, including Title II (which governs many of the teacher portions of the law) will be reviewed by the department. 

First, a quick look at how the peer-review process is supposed to work, according to ESSA: The "peers" are selected by the department. And according to the law, they can include parents, teachers, principals, other school leaders, representatives of state educational agencies, school districts, and the broader community, including the business community. They can also include researchers who are familiar with standards, assessments, and accountability, as well as folks with expertise in meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, children in special education, and English-learners. 

The law says that, ideally, most of the members of a peer review team should have recent, practical experience in the classroom, school administration, or state and local government. (Sorry policy wonks! ESSA is fine with some of you sitting on a team, but doesn't seem to want you to form a peer review supergroup.)

And each team should represent a "diverse cross section of states." (So no fair having only representatives of say, the Northeast, or Mountain states on a particular team.) The names of the reviewers are supposed to be made public, after the process is complete. (That way, there's still transparency, but state officials won't be tempted to run out and buy each of their peer reviewers a nice basket of muffins in exchange for a favorable review.)

Career staff at the department can answer questions these "peers" may have about the plans or the process. But, importantly, the law expressly prohibits the secretary—and political appointees—from monkeying with peer review. It's ultimately up to the secretary, however, to give the thumbs up or down to a particular state's plan. 

The department has 120 days to respond to state plans. And if the agency doesn't give feedback during that window, the plan is considered to be approved. If the secretary turns a state down, the department must offer the state help in working through its plan, and allow the state the opportunity to make its case at a hearing. (Want more? The process is outlined in the law itself, on pages 15 through 18.)

More than a dozen states have told the department they are shooting for the April 3 deadline to submit their plans. There is a second deadline on Sept. 18, which is when the majority of states will submit their plans. 

So why does this guidance only cover three programs? That's all that is officially envisioned in ESSA, although all sections of the law were required to go through peer-review under guidance put out by the Obama administration and linked to its now-defunct accountability regulations for the law. (Congress, as you probably know, got rid of those regulations through a process known as the Congressional Review Act.

True federal policy nerds can check out the Obama administration's peer review guidance and compare it to the Trump administration's guidance. Probably unsurprisingly, the Trump version is more bare-bones and closer to the text of ESSA. Arguably, that means states will have less information on what the department will be looking at specifically in gauging state plans for those parts of the law. But fewer instructions could also translate to more flexibility.

"This is the minimum bar," said Anne Hyslop, who helped craft the Obama administration's accountability regulations and is now a senior associate at Chiefs for Change. "Ultimately a state can choose to go beyond this to help advance its goals."  

In case you were wondering, peers looked at all parts of a state's plan under the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. 


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