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Advice to State Leaders on ESSA: Be Bold, Not Bureaucrats

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Lance Fusarelli, professor and director of graduate programs for the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at N.C. State University. 

Poor Betsy DeVos, she can't win for losing. In recent weeks, she has come under fire from critics on both the left and right over her department's implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ever since the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) began providing feedback on drafts of states' plans, Senator Alexander and conservatives have been criticizing DeVos for federal overreach. On the left, civil-rights organizations have criticized Secretary DeVos for not being aggressive enough in ensuring states comply with requirements built in to ensure equity. Senators Patty Murray and Bobby Scott recently complained that Secretary DeVos' new approach of conducting two-hour phone calls with states about their ESSA plans before providing written feedback violates the "public review" provision of ESSA. While these inside-the-beltway politics play out, it's important for state leaders drafting their ESSA plans not to be distracted with or constrained by these conflicts.

ESSA provides a window of opportunity—the first since before NCLB—for state and local educational leaders to be bold; to create systems of accountability that work best in their contexts and that make sense for their students and teachers. So what if the USDOE doesn't accept the first draft of your state's plan and recommends revisions? You can simply revise and resubmit it. Researchers do this all the time when they submit a paper for publication. You might even get away with not heeding the feedback at all, as the USDOE's own "frequently asked questions" makes clear.

Several years ago, in "School Superintendents and the Law," Rick and I examined how lawsuits and the courts have impacted the culture and nature of school-district leadership. Coupled with the political nature of the position, having to deal with board members who occasionally put personal interest above what's best for children, as well as needing to comply with voluminous reporting requirements promulgated by state and federal bureaucrats, we concluded that some superintendents were overly cautious in initiating and leading change. After years of being inculcated into bureaucratic norms, being sued by anyone and everybody, and fighting political battles at the local and state level, we believed that such superintendents preferred not to rock the boat—compliance is the path of least resistance.

With respect to ESSA, it's crucial that state and local leaders be bold and not take the path of least resistance. Seriously, what's the worst that could happen? The feds aren't going to withhold or reduce a state's Title I money—they've hardly ever done that in the history of ESEA, and they certainly won't do it given the current Congress. To paraphrase a 40-year-old Burger King slogan, there really is no penalty for doing it your way.

I recognize that drafting your state's ESSA plan is a time and labor-intensive process, with multiple meetings for public input spread out over several months. After putting in all this hard work, you want to get it right the first time; you don't want to have to revise it. But don't do what you think the bureaucrats in Washington want you to do; don't do what is easiest. Do what you think is best for the children in your state.

Over the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to meet many local and state school leaders. I have been and continue to be impressed with their knowledge about what works best for children and their earnest desire to provide them the best possible education. I also share their frustration about bureaucratic mandates, onerous regulations, and the compliance-driven mentality a bit too common in state and federal agencies.

I also recognize that well intentioned state and local officials can create policies that generate greater inequities; an example of which may be the waiver Florida officials are preparing that would exempt the state from judging schools in part by how well English-language learners are performing or from continuing to assess the achievement gaps among subgroups of students. Civil-rights advocates in Florida are upset about these changes. Officials in Tennessee have come under similar criticism for proposing the use of super-subgroups in their accountability system, which civil-rights groups contend will mask achievement gaps. But what happens when you have so few students in some subgroups that the grouping itself makes little sense—as is the case in several rural states?

Before we rush to judge the motives of state leaders, let's be willing to listen to the rationales and reasons behind these proposals. It's entirely possible some state plans will contain policies and mechanisms that promote greater equity than those contained in the federal law. Remember, policies are blunt instruments (much like using a sledgehammer to build a house) that contain provisions more applicable in some contexts than others. Not all state contexts are the same, and we must recognize that adjustments may need to be made.

Not all the equity provisions contained in ESSA make sense in all states or in all contexts. For example, states must report to USDOE, and publish on state and district report cards, the real amount of money spent per student at the school and district-level (which will make inequities in staffing, such as who gets the least-experienced teachers, readily apparent). This data must include the different sources of funds, so it will be possible to compare which schools and districts are receiving more or less funding per student from federal, state, and local sources.

While this provision will shed light on critical, oft-overlooked inequities that contribute to the achievement gap, it may create an onerous regulatory burden for rural school districts where principals and superintendents wear many hats. Recently, I met several superintendents in Montana who suddenly became emergency handymen when pipes broke or roofs leaked, who drove busses when a driver was out sick, who serve dual roles as both principal and superintendent, and who actually still teach. Such leaders lack the administrative support structure commonly found in large, urban districts. While well-intentioned and important, the demands and mandates of the resource-equity provision may not make sense in such districts. That's why it's important to carefully listen to the reasoning of state policy makers as they explain their ESSA plans. We should not assume federal officials have cornered the market on equity and enlightenment.

As they prepare their states' ESSA plans, state and local educational leaders must not waste this opportunity to do what they believe is best for the children in their states. Now is the time to be bold, not be compliance-driven bureaucrats. It's time, as Sen. Alexander said, for states to be pioneers and think afresh. Let's not waste this opportunity—it may not come again for a while.

—Lance Fusarelli

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