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How Should States Approach School Improvement Under ESSA?

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Washington 

States clamored for—and got—more say over turning around their lowest-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act. To help states with that tough task, the Council of Chief State School Officers Wednesday released a list of school improvement principles that states may want to use to guide their ESSA work.

CCSSO looked at practices in states that have had the most success at turning around their low-performing schools, such as Massachusetts and Kentucky, to craft the principles. 

Their recommendations include: Making sure the state, district, and school each understand their turnaround responsibilities; setting high expectations for students; reaching out to the school and community to craft and implement any improvement plan; picking improvement strategies that match schools' needs; focusing the most attention on the highest-needs schools; putting in place clear expectations for school progress; and thinking from the very beginning about how states will sustain their turnaround efforts.

Two state chiefs who have grappled with school turnarounds—Candice McQueen, the commissioner of education in Tennessee, and Steve Canavero, the superintendent of public instruction in Nevada, joined CCSSO to talk about the principles at a panel discussion in Washington. Also on hand, John B. King Jr., the former U.S. secretary of education and state chief in New York. 

Both current chiefs said that no state, including their own, has really figured out the secret recipe to school turnarounds. 

"This is a humbling process, we have yet to see one magic bullet, one silver bullet," said McQueen. But she said her state has a "theory of action" that is "actually moving the conversation forward."

It's hard to say to call "any single strategy THE strategy" for turning around low-performing schools, said Canavero. His state wants to give districts some help in figuring out which strategies have a lot of evidence to back them up. 

So, like a handful of other states, it came up with a list of suggested interventions for districts to try out. Districts that wanted to go off the list had to prove their ideas would work as well as the ones suggested by the state, Canavero said. And schools that really struggle could become part of the state's Achievement School District. (Tennessee uses a similar approach.)

But King, who is now the president of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority kids, has some worries as he looks over state plans. He wonders if states are spending enough time and energy thinking about how they'll identify and help schools that seem to be doing well overall, but where a particular group of kids is struggling.

And looking across the plans, both those that have been submitted and those that are coming in September, "there's reason to worry" about whether there is a "coherent vision for improving all schools," King said.

Want more? We've taken a close look at how several state plans handle that requirement here.  And we've written about big themes in state turnaround plans.


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