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Explaining the 'Why' of New Education Policies

This week, Andy Saultz will be taking over the guest blog to discuss the real stuff of when and how policy gets made, and to share lessons he learned during his time as a school board member. Andy previously taught high school social studies before earning his Ph.D. from Michigan State. He is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was drafted in a familiar way. The law attempts to rectify many of the problems with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Policymakers tend to be reactive when drafting such laws, trying to fix the problems of yesterday rather than forecasting how policy may prevent, or even address, troubles of the future.

One way ESSA tried to fix NCLB was to add a "non-academic" indicator to school accountability systems. States were required to include at least one of these indicators in their ESSA accountability plans that would be implemented in the 2017-18 school year. This could be anything from attendance, to school climate, to suspension/expulsion data.

I spent much of the last two years working with, and listening to, educators strategizing about how to best shape Ohio's plan for ESSA. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE), to their credit, spent much of the 2016-17 school year talking with educators, researchers, and parents about how the state should craft the new accountability system. They presented the background on the new law, its details, and what the options were to meet the various requirements. They listened to feedback from these groups before deciding on the specifics of Ohio's plan.

The first forum was telling. The staffers at ODE finished the thirty-minute presentation right on time, and opened it up for questions and comments. A superintendent spoke first: "Don't we already do something that we could use for this?"

As I listened to this exchange, I could not help but chuckle. What a perfect exemplar of the divide between policymakers and practitioners. The superintendent, and many other educators I spoke with about ESSA, just wanted to create a system that would not add work to their daily lives. Policymakers, on the other hand, were trying to expand the accountability system as a way of addressing the critique that NCLB was too focused on standardized test scores. So what did they do? They wrote a new law that just asked states to add in a new indicator.

ODE had a very polished presentation, but it did not persuade many educators that adding a non-academic indicator would improve teaching and learning. Many of them interpreted ESSA as just another federal policy that would lead to seemingly never-ending piles of paperwork. Principals and superintendents spend a lot of time on bureaucracy. Therefore, when crafting a new policy, policymakers need to consider its effects on the daily lives of educators. Including educators in all levels of the process would help anticipate ways this would happen.

Policymakers also need to carefully roll out policies in a way that explains why these changes are happening. There is evidence that non-academic indicators may improve student learning, but that evidence was not a focus of the ODE presentation of ESSA to stakeholders. Before we can address what a policy should look like or how we will measure it, we need to make sure that everyone understands why these changes will be good for kids. If we do not, a new policy just becomes another box to check on the ever-expanding to-do list for school administrators.

Andy Saultz

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