Superintendents and teachers from across western Montana are cautiously optimistic about the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new law that tosses out the controversial No Child Left Behind and is supposed to return more control to states and local school districts.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., hosted a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon at Missoula County Public Schools’ business building. Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and senior adviser to the U.S. Education Secretary Ruthanne Buck joined him, as did superintendents from Montana school districts.
The goal, Buck said, is to hear comments and concerns of educators nationwide as the U.S. Department of Education continues to write regulations and guidance surrounding Every Student Succeed’s implementation.
ESSA went into effect in December, replacing No Child Left Behind, which was enacted in 2002.
Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke voted for ESSA. Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines voted no, saying the law “fails to provide states with needed flexibility and control over federal education funds to best address the needs of local students.”
In March, Juneau appointed two work groups of 33 teachers, parents and school board members to help develop the state’s plan. Montana will move from No Child Left Behind to ESSA next school year.
“Local control is critical,” Tester said.
That all sounds nice, superintendents said, but will it be reality?
The argument against No Child Left Behind was that the federal government had too much control over education, holding funding hostage if states didn’t meet certain benchmarks tied to annual standardized testing. ESSA is reported to relax that control, and let states and local districts decide accountability for themselves.
“Is there really going to be local control or is that just words on a page?” said Great Falls Public Schools superintendent Tammy Lacey.
Lacey said she has “more questions than answers” about ESSA and agreed with Juneau that she doesn’t want ESSA to turn into “No Child Left Behind 2.0.”
“For the record, neither do we,” Buck said.
“Will we learn that accountability drives what’s taught in our classrooms?” Lacey said. “We know and saw that happen when we tested math and reading, what happened in schools, where the focus went.”
She’s referring to a common criticism that NCLB encouraged “teaching to the test,” specifically to the requirement for annual standardized tests on math and reading for grades 3-8 and once in high school.
Because the results of those tests fed directly into federal accountability measures, schools were forced to put emphasis on those subjects while programs such as art, music and career-technical education were “decimated,” Lacey said.
“What we are hopefully going to get to in the accountability regulation is a more holistic, well-rounded approach … where states have the flexibility to determine what factors they’re going to use in their accountability system,” Buck said.
As state planning gets underway, Office of Public Instruction deputy superintendent Candy Lubansky said the accountability piece has been the first area of focus. Starting on that foot “makes us kind of nervous,” Lacey said, because it’s deja vu of No Child Left Behind.
“We need to make sure we’ve learned a lesson about blame and shame, that it doesn’t work, and tying student achievement to teacher evaluations,” Lacey said.
Evergreen School District superintendent Laurie Barron said she’s still worried about federal overreach when it comes to ESSA’s rules and regulations.
“I would ask the department to please not add language that’s not part of the law,” she said.
Barron’s also concerned that ESSA implementation is happening too quickly. While it goes into effect next school year, she said schools should not be identified as in need of support or improvement at the start of next school year “based on (20)16-17 NCLB data.”
“This rushed timeline may lead states to maintaining the status quo or making only minor changes to plans,” she said. “At that point we end up in accountability plans that mirror NCLB. We should not be rushed to create a weak product just to get it done.”
Educators also stood firm on allowing states to determine how they measure success, pointing to formative assessments over summative assessments – the former, assessments along the way that inform what’s happening in the classroom; the latter, a final assessment at the end of the year, the results of which may not be available until after the class has moved up a grade.
“Statute does not require each school to be rated by a single indicator,” Barron said. “Please do not reduce schools to a single number or letter.”
The Department of Education has not yet produced a final ruling on its four regulation areas, one of which is accountability. Buck said the department has received 20,000 comments on accountability and while she couldn’t discuss specifics of the process, “a lot of what you’re saying is being reflected in those comments.”
“Yours and Tammy’s concerns … we’re hearing echoed across the country,” Buck said to Barron.
School Administrators of Montana executive director Kirk Miller, however, said the Department of Education should be “technical assistance” only, and “move as far away from regulation and even the guidance as possible.”
“That naturally moves us away from the sanction and shame feeling of NCLB to support and encouragement coming all the way from the feds as a result of the Department of Education working in that manner,” he said.
Data collection has become a “burden,” Miller said, noting that educators seem “destined to paperwork to fill out forms for things they don’t see value in.” While Buck recognized it can be burdensome, she said the information is valuable in learning about the disparities between states and school districts.
The state should take on some of that responsibility, Juneau said, to not duplicate data collection the state is already doing and to relieve Montana districts – most of which are rural and have limited resources.
“There is, I think, a realistic callousing among professionals in education as to what’s coming next,” said Corvallis School District superintendent Tim Johnson.
Johnson said “from a cynic’s perspective,” ESSA does seem somewhat like NCLB 2.0 because “I’m seeing some of the same language being used.”