Under the newest federal K-12 education law, parents will get more information about schools
Within the next two years, parents and advocates will get significantly more information about their schools and school districts, going far beyond demographics and test scores to include reporting on everything from absenteeism rates to new details about how schools spend their money.
That is a result of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the newest incarnation of the main K-12 federal education law. ESSA is the successor to the previous reauthorization, dubbed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2002 legislation that imposed a highly controversial accountability and intervention regime on schools that required annual testing, mandated that results be disaggregated by student subgroups, and caused upheaval in schools that were not making the grade.
The federal government’s control over education is minimal, but its influence is substantial. Both NCLB and now ESSA are reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the major federal education law signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. At that time, Johnson said that the “first national goal” should be “educational opportunity for all.”
The law is reauthorized periodically, funneling money to low-income schools and districts and setting conditions for use of the money, with the goal of affecting state policy regarding equity and excellence.
Although ESSA, like NCLB, wants states to identify and intercede in their lowest-performing schools, it also nudges policymakers to apply a broader array of criteria when judging performance and to provide help rather than punishment.
NCLB required districts to identify their lowest-performing schools, using little more than test scores, and prescribed drastic interventions such as conversion to charters or firing the principal and all or part of the staff.
Under ESSA, the state must identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and come up with a comprehensive improvement plan for each one that takes a more nuanced look at student achievement and sets a timeline for reaching goals. That will add up to 70 to 80 schools in the state.
States must still test in grades 3-8 and once in high school and must consider math and reading proficiency rates in identifying the lowest-performing schools, as well as graduation rates and English learner proficiency.
Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan, which has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education, broadens the criteria by which schools are judged to include statistics on chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness. Although the annual testing is still mandatory, Pennsylvania has reduced its amount and length.
“The point of the whole thing is to add flexibility [compared to NCLB],” said Beth Olanoff, special assistant to Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera for ESSA.
In addition, Pennsylvania has decided to judge academic achievement not just on what percentage of students are proficient in math and reading, but on the degree of progress a school is making.
“As we look more broadly at indicators of success, we’re doing that especially by emphasizing growth,” Olanoff said. “Even though a school’s kids may not be doing well on proficiency, if they’re moving in the right direction, if the growth is impressive, they are no longer identified for improvement.”
Details about the new supportive interventions for the identified schools were not part of Pennsylvania’s original ESSA plan, but will be unveiled in May, Olanoff said. The new evaluation system will begin with the 2018-19 school year.
The overall goal is to find the “root cause” of a school’s problems and develop a plan to address them. “It is a thoughtful needs assessment, looking at ‘what is the problem here,’ she said, “whether it is too much turnover among teachers, inadequate leadership capacity, high chronic absenteeism,” or something else.
“Rather than turning it over to a charter or removing the principal,” she added, “we want to be more thoughtful at looking at the issues facing the school and in addressing those issues.”
For the most part, superintendents around the state feel that the changes will help struggling schools and districts more than NCLB did.
Now, the state “will go in and try to provide support and resources, instead of just shaming them,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “They may have a lot of kids who are economically disadvantaged in an urban or rural setting, and they are not doing that well overall on proficiency, but growth is solid.”
ESSA will also do away with the state’s School Performance Profile, which scored each school on a scale of 1-100, based on a variety of factors. Instead, there will be a “dashboard” called the Future Ready Index that is far more complicated but, Olanoff argues, provides a wealth of additional information to parents and other stakeholders. Pennsylvania is among six states that have decided to use this dashboard instead of a single number to rate a school.
Many outside groups that have been evaluating state ESSA plans give Pennsylvania high marks for how it has refocused judging school effectiveness and student achievement, especially its career-readiness indicator and emphasis on student growth.
The indicator “creates a path and a process for all students and the adults around them to think about what is needed to be prepared for various careers as early as 5th grade,” said a report by Collaborative for Student Success, a group that advocates for maintaining high academic standards and rigorous accountability for districts and states.
“Pennsylvania should also be applauded for the substantial emphasis it places on student achievement and growth,” the report said. “Balancing proficiency and growth is essential because it incentivizes schools to help all students improve while remaining focused on the important goal of ensuring students graduate prepared for success after high school.”
But the Collaborative’s report also cited weaknesses, particularly over whether the plan will put a dent in Pennsylvania’s problem with inequity among school districts and achievement gaps among different student subgroups.
Max Marchitello wrote the review of Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan for the collaborative. A policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners and a former high school teacher in Philadelphia, he is concerned that the ESSA plan, compared to what was required under NCLB, will allow schools to mask low performance on the part of historically underserved students, especially African Americans and Latinos and those who are disabled, poor, and learning English.
NCLB held districts accountable for the academic performance of these subgroups, he said. But ESSA only requires that the subgroup scores be reported. The evaluation that identifies schools requiring intervention doesn’t assign any weight to continued gaps.
And the state has set lower improvement goals for these subgroups, he said.
Olanoff said that this is true – the goal is to close 50 percent of the achievement gap for every subgroup by 2030. “Every subgroup starts at a different place, so closing the gap by 50 percent will lead to a different goal.”
She said that “we made a policy choice.” The goals of NCLB, she said, were 100 percent proficiency by 2014 – a goal so unrealistic that educators and policymakers did not take it seriously.
“That wasn’t good for morale,” she said, “They felt it was building in failure.”
Marchitello, however, is concerned about the pendulum swinging too far the other way – from pie-in-the-sky under NCLB to lowered expectations under ESSA.
Although Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan is “pushing us generally in the right direction,” he says, “it is failing to prompt sufficient action on the part of underserved students” because subgroup performance disparities will not be considered in determining which schools need intervention.
“ESSA, to me, is a reaction to NCLB revealing that suburban schools were not delivering as much as we thought for the families who thought they were buying into high-quality education.”
Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, is concerned about a related issue, subgroup size. Schools would need at least 20 students in any given tested group – for instance, 4th graders – for results to be counted. That was reduced from 40 under NCLB, but it is still not low enough, she said.
“It should be 10,” she said. “The number has been reduced, but if I have 10 African American students, they should be counted. All could be failing, and nobody knows it. That’s part of the point we are making.”
She is also worried about replacing the numerical rating of schools under the School Performance Profile with the dashboard of indicators, which contains more information, but may be harder for many parents to access or understand.
Under the old system, parents could see a letter or number ranking – a C or a 75, Bush said. The dashboard is so complex that parents “would have to take a college course” to figure out how their child’s school is doing.
Plus, many of the parents she works with can’t easily access an online resource like that.
“If I tell them, ‘Go online and look at the dashboard,’ they say, ‘What? I can’t go online, I don’t have a computer at home.’”
Bush, the founder of a charter school in Pittsburgh, also likes certain aspects of the plan. She especially praised the Pennsylvania Department of Education for reaching out to stakeholders around the state.
“I am extremely pleased to be at the table,” she said. “I know my voice is being heard.”
She added that “Pennsylvania is one of a few states that said it would close the achievement gap by a certain year. That’s helpful.”
A recent report from Research for Action showed that just 4 percent of the teachers in the state are persons of color, and Bush finds this very worrisome. Part of Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan attempts to address this issue through working with the university system to improve diversity in teacher pipelines, leadership development strategies, and clinical teacher residency programs, among other strategies.
Perhaps the most game-changing of the requirements under ESSA is how it mandates schools and districts to report spending.
The federal government funnels billions of dollars to states for distribution to their poorest schools and districts, with stringent rules on what it can be used for. Most of that comes through Title I, the pot of federal money targeted to low-income, low-achieving students.
The original goal was to ease disparities among wealthy and poor districts. But in a state with the widest district-by-district spending gaps in the country, it hardly makes a dent. Every district in the state gets some Title I money – they only need to have 2 percent low-income students, or at least 10.
Pennsylvania spends more than $33.2 billion on K-12 education, of which $19 billion is local revenue and $11.4 billion comes from the state. Less than $1 billion comes from federal sources.
Still, for some schools and districts, this federal money is a lifeline. For others, it is pocket change.
“If I didn’t get Title I money, I would lose my climate manager,” said Jeannine Payne, principal of Richard Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where almost all the students come from low-income families. “I would lose individuals who help us run the school lunch program."
But what the new federal education law does achieve is a more detailed accounting of all the money each school spends – state, local, and federal funds – for a fresher look at what education dollars are used for and how districts distribute it among schools.
“It’s going to ask that the reporting include a measure of how much money is spent on kids at each school,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and senior research affiliate at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She is one of the nation’s leading experts on school finance. “We already report outcomes by school. Now, we will report spending by school.”
This information will allow researchers, policymakers, and parents to more closely link achievement with per-pupil revenue and could potentially reshape the conversation about equity, Roza said.
In reporting individual school spending, districts will be required to use actual teacher salaries, rather than assign the same amount for each teacher regardless of what that teacher earns. It will also require districts to allot to each school a portion of the centralized spending on things like transportation, administrator salaries, testing, and instructional materials.
Policymakers and parents will be able to see that, even within districts, spending varies widely among schools and ponder whether students who need the most are receiving it.
“I think a lot of stuff will pop up,” Roza said. Parents will be able to see instantly that one school has a far more expensive staff than another, due to a more experienced teaching force, or that a school eats up more funds per student because its enrollment is low and therefore overhead is relatively more costly. Or they might find out that a Montessori or state-of-the-art STEM program drives up the per-pupil expense.
What policymakers will do with the information is another question. It will be collected starting in the 2018-19 school year.
“The law calls for “financial transparency, but there is no requirement to remedy those disparities,” Roza said.
Some people think it is a problem that experienced teachers gravitate to relatively well-off schools; others don’t, Roza said.
Separate from the financial reporting, ESSA includes a provision that requires states to describe in their ESSA plans how they will work to remedy conditions that result in poor and minority students being taught by a disproportionate number of ineffective or inexperienced teachers. But Roza said she “has not heard of a single state that is thinking of using the financial data as part of the effective teacher requirement.”
Pennsylvania, for instance, is banking on shoring up teacher pipelines, leadership development, recruitment, and training.
Both Bush, of the Urban League, and Marchitello, who reviewed Pennsylvania’s plan, say it is important for the public to stay involved.
The big question, said Marchitello, is whether “there sufficient political and public will to respond to what data is showing.”
Said Bush: “It’s very important for parents and residents of the state to stay active. They can still weigh in on this.”