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DeVos' Top K-12 Deputy Tells Chiefs to Innovate, But Comply With ESSA

St. Louis

Jason Botel, the U.S. department's acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, told a room full of state schools chiefs Wednesday that he wants states to be innovative in working to close the nation's yawning achievement gap, but also wants them to make sure they comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act in doing so.  

Botel's office is in the thick of evaluating  34 state ESSA plans and doing so with limited resources and plenty of political pressure, he said during a frank and abbreviated speech at the Council of Chief State School officers annual policy conference. 

"We're trying to strike a balance of encouraging innovation and assuring compliance with the letter of the law," said Botel. "This is a collaborative, iterative process. This is not a gotcha process."  

Botel said that in two weeks, he'll publish some initial feedback letters to several states' plans on how they intend to use billions of federal dollars to improve the educational outcomes of the nation's growing poor and minority student population.  

State chiefs have spent the past two years designing new school accountability plans under ESSA, a politically contentious process that led to several of their resignations.

The state chiefs congregated here in the shadows of St. Louis' Gateway Arch to discuss how, with limited resources, they're going to implement their ESSA plans once they're approved by the U.S. Department of Education. States will start implementing those plans starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Botel, who was the founder of a KIPP charter middle school in Baltimore, faced a host of criticism when he first took office for his initial hard-line feedback on states' plans which critiqued, among other things, states' goals and how they defined ineffective teachers.

On Wednesday, Botel said the office of elementary and secondary education must upend the entire way the education department monitors states since ESSA is such a sharp break from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Before ESSA, the federal government dictated how states should identify and intervene in schools where just a handful of poor students and students of color met math and reading proficiency goals. But state chiefs now have more discretion in how they construct their accountability systems and intervene in low-performing schools.  

"ESSA is very different, and that brings several new challenges for us," Botel said.  

Echoing the message of his boss, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Botel said he's encouraged that states are pushing the boundaries of the law on things such as how they incorporate science test scores into their accountability systems and identify and support different student subgroups. Such state decisions have been especially controversial. Botel said he must assure that states abide by ESSA. 

"We trust you and what you say your state needs, but we want to make sure it fits within the confines of the law," Botel said.  

State leaders in at least five states have urged DeVos to reject their chiefs' plans for a variety of reasons, and civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations have pointed out a number of areas where they believe states are breaking with parts of the law.

Florida, for example, said in its accountability plan that it doesn't want to include English-language learners' proficiency test scores in its accountability system, provide those students with tests in their native languages, or identify schools with large achievement gaps between minority and poor students and other students, all things the law appears to require. 

Botel met with several of those states' leaders, including Florida's commissioner, before his speech Wednesday morning.

His office has so far approved 15 state plans that were turned in earlier this year. Two of the plans submitted in the spring, Michigan's and Colorado's, have not been approved. 

In September, 34 more states turned in their plans. Botel said that he had expected for his staff to be doubled in order to handle the extra load. That did not happen. 

"We are not complaining, but this is a large volume of plans," he said.  

He did say that CCSSO has provided helpful critiques on the feedback process and that an added conference call between the department and states before official feedback letters are published has helped the department clarify some of the more confusing parts of states' plans. Critics, however, have said the conference calls are an underhanded and opaque way to provide states' feedback. 

Botel urges that, once states' plans are approved, they should think of them as living documents that can—and should—be amended as states learn what does and does not work. 

"You have a lot of work to do after these plans are approved," Botel said. "We expect a constant back and forth in the future."   

Meanwhile, state chiefs fretted out loud at the conference about their departments' ability to roll out new accountability systems, collect the data associated with those systems and relay to the public on redesigned report cards how schools stack up academically. 

State chiefs are currently under political scrutiny for stagnant test scores and controversial federal, state and local approaches to boosting those test scores. The average chief lasts in the job for a little more than two years. 

State legislatures also have slashed away at departments' budgets in recent years leading to massive layoffs that make even more difficult states' ability to collect more student outcome data that must now be relayed to the public. 

"We are thin, and our capacity has been greatly reduced," Missouri's Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said during a session about school turnaround. 

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