An ESSA Primer: Will Maryland Make the Most of ESSA?

Or will it be more of the same?

Photo credit: National Education Association

It’s been more than a year since President Obama signed the every student succeeds act (ESSA) into law — laying to rest the policy disaster known as No Child Left Behind.

Now Maryland is beginning to take serious steps in the lengthy process of implementing the new law. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) recently finished the first draft of its ESSA implementation plan and gathered public feedback in January at live events and through responses to an online survey. MSDE will be finalizing the plan between February and August, and in September will submit it to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. Let’s take a look at what ESSA can mean for Maryland.

ESSA Lets States Decide What School Success Means Congress decided that school accountability should instead be designed on a state by state basis, with the federal government merely making sure each state covers a bare minimum.

Standards and Assessments ESSA keeps the requirement that every student is tested in math and English in grades 3–8 and once in high school, and in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. The state standardized test must be aligned to high standards — Common Core or otherwise.

Indicators of School Success But the state school accountability system doesn’t have to be based entirely or even predominantly on those test scores. Instead, states have the chance to include new indicators of school success in their measurement like:

  1. Small class sizes
  2. Low student ratios for special educators
  3. School counselors, or mental health professionals
  4. Low chronic absenteeism
  5. A healthy and supportive school culture
  6. Access to advanced coursework or career and technology programs, and more.

ESSA does require that states include the following indicators in their system:

1. Proficiency on the state test

2. English-language proficiency for students who are learning English as a second language

3. And at least one other indicator of school quality.

NOTE: Elementary and middle schools must also include another standardized measurement of academic performance (such as student growth on the state test), and high schools must also include the graduation rate.

But ESSA does not dictate how many indicators there have to be or how they are weighted in the overall system. It simply says that the academic indicators have to have more weight than the other school success indicators.

That means it’s entirely up to the state as to whether it has a system that looks like what we had under No Child Left Behind, with test scores being the key measurement, or a new approach that prioritizes other indicators of school quality.

Maryland’s school accountability system can emphasize opportunity to learn measures over test scores. And as we know, whatever is measured is going to be prioritized by districts and principals.

What Happens to Schools That Don’t Do Well? Using the indicators in their accountability models, each state is required to identify three types of schools for support and improvement: high schools that fail to graduate 67% or more of their students, the lowest performing 5% of Title I schools, and schools with consistently underperforming subgroups.

The student subgroups listed in ESSA are racial minorities, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. So if a school has any one of those subgroups underperforming their total student population — however the state defines “underperform” — they fall into an identification category for support and improvement.

Support and Improvement For the schools with underperforming subgroups, the school leadership gets the first chance to decide

on a plan to bring the struggling subgroup up to its peer performance. For high schools with low graduation rates, low-performing Title I schools, and schools with consistently underperforming subgroups who do not improve, the district can decide on a plan. If the district is not successful, then the state must step in.

Broad latitude in interventions could mean anything from supportive steps like making sure low-income students get the meals they need, to harmful moves like closing down the school and giving all the students vouchers.

The law requires that at least 7% of Title I funding — usually given to designated schools with heavily low-income student populations — be dedicated to identified schools. But it does not specify how those resources are allocated, which presents a big problem if the state decides to use that federal funding in a competitive grant program — think Race to the Top.

The Three Paths of ESSA Implementation With all of these key decisions left to the state, the State Board of Education, MSDE, the General Assembly, and public education advocates all have to find a way to agree on a system that works best for schools and students. But it’s going to be tough. As things stand right now, implementation can take one of three paths: compliance, privatization, or opportunity.

MSDE, like many other state education departments, is deeply committed to its past approach. It’s easier to make a few minor tweaks and merely comply with ESSA’s requirements than it is to create a bold, new accountability model.

The State Board dismissed MSDE’s draft plan, looking instead to sweeping change that would open the doors for privatization of “failing” public schools through interventions such as forced charter school conversion, closing public schools and issuing private school vouchers instead, or even creating a special state-run school district for identified schools. All of these ideas come from a privatization ideology that believes K-12 education should operate more as a profit-driven market than a public service.

MSEA Believes in Creating Opportunity For schools that are facing opportunity gaps, we want a locally-driven process led by stakeholders within those schools to be at the table when improvement plans are crafted. We believe kids need more opportunities within their existing public schools — not an escape out of public schools, and definitely not more of the same.

Whether we go down an opportunity path, or one of the other two, depends on whose voice is loudest over the next nine months. If educators and public school advocates speak with a unified voice, we can use ESSA to reshape our schools for the better for decades to come.