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Betsy DeVos' Team Tells Maryland Its ESSA Plan Needs Work

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It's that time again! States that submitted their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act this fall are beginning to receive feedback from the U.S. Department of Education.

First up: Maryland, which received its letter on Dec. 12. And the department's list of asks for Maryland is extensive compared to other states'.

The Old Line State needs to rethink its goals for student achievement, the department says. States are supposed to have goals for both high school and grades 3 through 8, but Maryland only has elementary and middle school goals. Maryland also needs to do a better job of spelling out how it will figure academic growth into its accountability system.

And the state needs to better explain how it will measure school climate and access to a well-rounded curriculum, the two measures Maryland has chosen to gauge school quality and student success. It's also unclear whether academic indicators count for more than nonacademic indicators in Maryland's systems. The state also needs to explain how it will identify low-performing schools and schools where particular groups of students are falling behind. And it needs to spell out how it will ensure that poor kids get access to their fair share of effective teachers. There are other areas of weakness too, you can read all about them in Maryland's feedback letter.

Importantly, Maryland's Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and an ally of U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos, refused to sign off on his state's plan because it didn't go far enough on accountability in his view.

Maryland also is probably the state most familiar to Jason Botel, who is filling the role of assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education until Frank Brogan, the former Florida lieutenant governor and state chief, can be confirmed. Botel was the executive director of Maryland CAN, a state advocacy organization.

Maryland didn't seem to be on the bottom of the ESSA heap in a recent review of state plans by Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization, and the Collaborative for Student Success, an advocacy organization. The reviewers said Maryland was weak on incorporating academic progress and measuring the achievement of all groups of students. But they gave Maryland high marks on its standards, assessments, and plans for continuously improving schools.

It's also unclear to some exactly to what extent states are supposed to take the department's feedback to heart. States that submitted their plans this spring got the federal seal of approval even if they didn't change things the department asked them to change. For instance, Tennessee still has so-called "super subgroups," which combine different groups of students for accountability purposes, even though the feds have said that's a no-no. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., an ESSA architect and the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, has expressed big concerns about this.

What's more, the department initially released extensive feedback letters for every state. Then it decided to change the review process midway, in favor of calling states and expressing concerns. That happened after big pushback from states and Republicans in Congress that DeVos' team was asking for more from states than the law required. 

Where do state ESSA plans stand? Sixteen states and the District of Columbia submitted their ESSA plans this fall. So far, all but one of those states has been approved. (The exception is Colorado, which asked for more time to improve its plan.) Another 34 states submitted earlier this fall. Maryland is the first of those to get feedback. 

Keep track of state ESSA plans here


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