Government's job is to do the right thing

by Susan Bergtraum

On Board Online • August 14, 2017

Susan Bergtraum
NYSSBA President

After reviewing the State Education Department's draft plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I've concluded that the plan has potential. The problem is that it goes beyond federal requirements and carries an uncertain price tag.

ESSA, the long-anticipated successor to No Child Left Behind, deals with how the state will evaluate schools that need improvement. The law is intended to offer states and school districts new flexibility on how to assess school performance.

To be sure, New York's proposed plan has many positive attributes.

First, it takes a comprehensive view of school performance. Right now, the state relies too heavily on student testing - specifically, state math and ELA assessments. The new plan sets forth a much broader set of criteria - such as progress toward English proficiency, chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions - for demonstrating school quality and success.

Second, the plan places as much weight on student growth as it does on overall student achievement. For example, schools would get credit for helping students move from the lowest level on state tests to demonstrating partial proficiency. This is a welcome change. It acknowledges that students first need to improve in an academic area before they can gain mastery.

Finally, the plan offers flexibility in looking at graduation rates. If a high school's four-year graduation rate is below 67 percent, the state will look at the rate for the fifth- and sixth-year cohorts before rushing to judgment. This rewards schools for helping students remain in high school beyond the traditional four years and earning their diplomas.

However, for all that is good about the state's ESSA compliance plan, I have several reservations.

First, as mentioned earlier, the plan exceeds federal requirements. For example, schools can only transfer teachers rated as "effective" or "highly effective" to a low-performing school. As school board members know, any type of transfer generally would represent a condition of employment and be subject to local collective bargaining. School districts will not be able to comply with this requirement without union agreement.

Moreover, the plan creates an additional layer of accountability not required by federal law: a system under which the state identifies lower performing school districts, as well as individual schools.

Also, the plan is overly prescriptive. It sets specific timelines and requirements for schools to close gaps in graduation rates and proficiency. Specifically, schools must close gaps in these areas by 20 percent from baseline measures - and also meet specific targets for interim progress along the way. Subgroups of students with the largest gaps between baseline performance and the long-term goal must show the greatest gains. Remember when NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in ELA and math by 2014?

Incremental progress is a better accountability goal. Children with the greatest gaps are often those with the greatest needs.

Our goal should be consistent progress, even if that progress does not match up exactly with the interim goals set by the State Education Department. While our aim is for long term growth, higher proficiency levels and graduation rates, let's avoid labeling schools or districts as low performers because they do not meet arbitrary state achievement targets.

Finally, the plan will require substantial funding to implement. The probability is that school districts will need to hire additional staff, purchase curriculum materials and provide training. In this regard, the plan illustrates the urgent need for the governor and Legislature to provide schools with the funding needed to implement it properly. Schools are entering a period of greater funding uncertainty. The possibility of federal budget cuts to education and Medicaid will loom large over the New York State budget process in 2018. We don't know whether the state will be able to provide the substantial increase needed to implement ESSA, and growth in local funding for schools is limited due to the tax levy cap.

No one can argue with the intent of the state's draft ESSA plan - to raise academic achievement for every student in every school. And we should all welcome the state's new approach to looking at school performance through a different, more comprehensive, lens.

If approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, this will be a system that schools and school districts will have to live with for a long time. We should make sure it is the most realistic plan possible that inspires an unrelenting focus on student achievement without needlessly labeling schools or districts. Also, it is important for the players in Albany to work together to ensure schools get the resources they need to achieve these goals.

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