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Will Betsy DeVos Set a High Bar for Approving ESSA Plans? Watch Michigan

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Want to know how high U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team will set the bar in approving Every Student Succeeds Act plans? How DeVos handles her home state may provide the answer.

Michigan's ESSA plan was largely panned in a review by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success. Another outside reviewer declined to rate it, citing incompleteness. The state's GOP lieutenant governor worried about its impact on students with special needs. And Jason Botel, the acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, called the state to talk about some of the information missing in its plan.

That last move angered Brian Whiston, Michigan's state chief, who said the feds were sending mixed messages when it comes to ESSA. DeVos, he said, stressed local control, and told state chiefs in a closed door meeting to hand in their plans even if they weren't totally complete. But Botel, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, seemed to be working from a different playbook, Whiston said last month.

A lot seems to have changed since then. For one thing, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a DeVos ally, questioned whether Botel had read ESSA carefully. And DeVos and company changed the way they'll be reviewing ESSA plans. Instead of just sending feedback letters and making them public, they'll first chat with states over the phone. If the state can explain a potential hiccup to the feds' satisfaction, the department might not mention the issue in an official feedback letter, which would be released after the phone call

Michigan had its call this week. Afterwards, Whiston put out a statement saying the state's interaction with the feds had been "very positive." He also said state would be submitting a revised plan, including some clarifications the department asked for.  

And DeVos herself had kind words for her home state, telling local reporters earlier this week that she's hopeful that Michigan "is going to be very bold and very creative in the way that they're addressing the needs of students here in Michigan."

But not everyone is optimistic about Michigan's ESSA vision. In fact, Doug Mesecar, an adjunct fellow at the Lexington Institute, a right-of-center think tank who reviewed Michigan's plan for the Collaborative for Student Success, said that if DeVos and company approve Michigan without major changes, it will be a sign that almost anything goes with DeVos' department.

"Based on what I've seen and what's public, if they approve Michigan, you gotta wonder what kind of signal does that send to rest of the states," said Mesecar, who headed up the department's office of innovation and improvement during President George W. Bush's administration. "That move would just let the barn doors open and everything is going to be possible."

Michigan's plan offers three possible visions for accountability, although the state has settled on a dashboard approach since filing its plan back in the spring. And it isn't clear about how it would identify its lowest performing schools, as well as schools where groups of students aren't performing well.

It also doesn't include any information about what a school would have to do to no longer be considered low-performing. And Michigan includes science and social studies in the "academic achievement" portion of its accountability system, an ESSA no-no.

In fact, there are so many blank spots in Michigan's plan, Mesecar doesn't think it should have been submitted for peer review at all.

"I would have expected the department to say we can't even review this it's got so many holes in it," Mesecar said. And if Michigan has in fact filled in those blanks, Mesecar wondered why its more fleshed-out ESSA vision hadn't been made public.

Reminder: So far, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have turned in ESSA plans. Nine have gotten feedback. And one state—Delaware—has been officially approved. The rest of the states will submit their ESSA visions later this fall. 


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