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DeVos Tongue-Lashing Sets Back States' ESSA Messaging

States' plans for how they'll comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act have taken a real beating in recent months—at least rhetorically—and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' tongue-lashing on Monday was only the latest. 

The secretary excoriated state schools chiefs at a legislative conference in Washington for a lack of amibition and innovation in the ESSA plans submitted to the federal government—dozens of which she's already approved.

Those comments come on the heels of education think tanks that have described  the plans in terms such as "ineffective," and "uninteresting," as well as a chorus of civil rights groups that have blasted the plans for failing to set a strict framework to assure progress for minority students, those with disabilities, and English-learners.

States are clearly sensitive to such criticism. Just two weeks ago, four of the largest state education membership associations—the Council of Chief State School Officers, National Conference of State Legislatures, Education Commission of the States, and National Association of State Boards of Education—launched a sleek public relations campaign to highlight some of the innovation tucked into states' plans.  

"As states finalize their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the States Leading Campaign will showcase the bold work underway through these plans and beyond to best meet the needs of all students," a press release accompanying the campaign launch read. The campaign is being coordinated by GMBB, a communications firm.  

DeVos seemed to scoff at the PR effort in her speech to the CCSSO on Monday.

"Even the best plan is short on the meaningful solutions that the law encourages," she said to a visibly stunned audience. "Even the best plan doesn't take full advantage of the law's built-in flexibility. And launching a PR push to defend these plans doesn't change that. It misses the point."

State education officials can hardly be pleased at a new round of high-level criticism just months before their new accountability systems go into effect. Those 100-plus-page plans reflect hundreds of policy decisions. Comparing ESSA plans to Obama-era NCLB waivers, as DeVos did Monday night, is potential political anathema in most states.  

State departments have gone back on the road in recent months explaining to school board members, district superintendents, principals and teachers some of the many changes coming their way this fall. In order for states to meet their ambitious academic goals (Kentucky wants to cut its achievement gap in half by 2030, for example), they need these practitioners to implement their plans with fidelity: collect the necessary data, share it with parents and believe in state departments' takeaways on the quality of their schools.

More importantly, many of the states' new initiatives require plenty of new funding and legislatures this year aren't necessarily flush with cash.  

"You need to marshall everyone toward implementation," said Carissa Moffat Miller, the interim executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "Everyone needs to know what role they're going to play."  

The creation of ESSA plans also wreaked political havoc on the state education policy front, complete with political restructuring, firings, and sour feelings between long-time political allies.

While it's true, as DeVos pointed out, that some governors (such as those in Maryland and Wisconsin) didn't sign off on their plans, 41 governors did. That means, by and large, that most of the nation's state education departments, governors and legislatures are at least somewhat on the same page when it comes to the plans they've outlined to the federal government. That very fact should not be taken lightly considering the divisive battles states endured implementing Common Core State Standards. 

State chiefs in recent years say they've learned their lesson: communication matters.  

The "States Leading" campaign attempts to highlight for national and local media outlets and advocates some of the things states have been up to since ESSA was passed in December 2015.  

Delaware, for example, recently launched a new career pathways for students to develop skills in high-demand fields. North Dakota has set a goal to make high school graduates military-ready. Arkansas has launched a campaign to help districts fix the teacher shortage. 

"There's been a steady drumbeat of people saying these plans are not innovative, that they're not bold," Miller said. "We decided we need to show, we need examples that bold and innovative work is going on in states."

What's more, CCSSO points out, a lot of these plans are still being hashed out and there's still opportunity for the public to get involved.  

Many states still haven't designed those ESSA-compliant report cards DeVos slammed Monday night, for example. And most states are still figuring out guidance in order to start collecting school spending amounts this fall (DeVos critiqued that process in her speech, too).  

In other words, state chiefs say, it may be too early to condemn them for falling short—there's still plenty more to come.  

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