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Trump Ed. Dept. to Michigan: Your ESSA Plan Is Missing Major Details

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UPDATED

A key section of Michigan's plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act is so sparse that the U.S. Department of Education isn't sure it's ready for formal review, according to a letter the agency published Tuesday. (Maine also received a response Tuesday, scroll down for more on that.)

The department told Michigan's state chief, Brian Whiston, the information it provided "was insufficient" to "adequately review" the section of the plan dealing with the state's accountability system, arguably the heart of ESSA. That could be partly because the state's application, filed this spring, Michigan offers three possible approaches on accountability. (Michigan has since settled on one of them, a "dashboard", Whiston said.)

Otherwise the letter, which followed a phone call between state officials and the education department on the plan, is fairly light when it comes to the list of things the state needs to fix. (More on that below).

Michigan's state chief, Brian Whiston, said in an interview that he was pleasantly surprised by the feedback, particularly given that department officials told Michigan earlier this year that they had a long list of concerns with the plan. Whiston received another call from the department last week, in advance of the formal feedback, which he described as "cordial."

Most of the information the department asked for on the call was "small, nitpicky" stuff, Whiston said. "We'll respond to that. It's no big deal. We'll get the little stuff back to them in a matter of a couple  days ... We'll have our response within 15 days."

Brian Gutman, the director of public engagement for Education Trust Midwest, an advocacy organization that looks out for disadvantaged students, had an entirely different take on the federal response.

"This is yet another person who is saying this plan is just simply inadequate for Michigan students," Gutman said. "There seems to be a real disconnect between what we're hearing from the U.S. Department of Education and what the Michigan department of education seems to be taking from that."

Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, a Republican, and Lt. Governor Brian Calley, have each expressed concerns with the state's plan.

And outside experts who have reviewed ESSA plans consider Michigan's one of the weakest of the seventeen that have been filed so far. Michigan's plan got the lowest rating from a team thirty experts who looked at ESSA plans for the Collaborative for Student Success Bellwether, an advocacy organization.

Kerry Moll, who reviewed Michigan's plan for the Collaborative, said the department's take echoes her own. "ED is saying they did not give us enough information, which mirrors our own review process," Moll said. 

Another independent review by the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute a think tank, also said Michigan supplied too few details to offer an overall rating.

Whiston said those outside reviews don't bother him, he's more interested in "what our teachers and board members in Michigan have to say."

So what kinds of problems did the department cite in the portions of the plan that it did review? The department wants much more detail on how Michigan will support migrant students, homeless kids, and rural schools. It's seeking a more complete explanation of how the state will train teachers to work with gifted students. The feds are also unclear if the state's proposed use for teacher quality grants follows rules for spending federal funds.

On the list of things not included in the letter, in part because the department isn't formally reviewing the accountability section:

Any mention of the fact that Michigan proposed three possible accountability systems. The department also didn't formally ask the state to explain how it will identify the lowest-performing schools and schools where particular groups of students, such as English language learners and student in special education are struggling. It didn't ask the state to be more specific about how it will decide when a struggling school has made enough progress that it no longer needs special help and attention. And the feds didn't say anything about the fact that Michigan is proposing one minimum subgroup size, or n-size, for English language learners, and another for other historically overlooked groups of students, an ESSA no-no.

Michigan wasn't the only state that got feedback recently. Maine also received feedback from the department that was released publicly Tuesday. The Pine Tree State needs to make sure it is setting goals for English-language learners to achieve proficiency in English, not just make progress in learning the language, the department found. The department also said Maine needs to explain how much things like graduation rates, academic achievement, and English-language proficiency will count towards a school's rating. The state also needs to better explain how it plans to identify struggling schools, as well as schools that need help educating particular groups of students, including English-language learners and students in special education.

Reminder:  So far, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have submitted ESSA plans. The rest of the states will file in the fall. One state, Delaware, has already been approved.

Michigan and Maine are the third and fourth states, after Illinois and the District of Columbia, to have its plan reviewed under the department's new system. Originally, the department gave states all of their feedback in writing. Under the new process, department officials will call states first and go over any potential trouble spots. Then they'll send a letter that may or may not flag those problems.  The department revamped its process after advocates—and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.—said the feds were being too heavy-handed in their ESSA approach. 

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