Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering School Accountability in the ESSA Era

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives local and state leaders a chance to dream up new accountability systems that consider a lot more than just test scores, and chart their own course when it comes to fixing struggling schools.

That flexibility could spur big – and potentially powerful – changes, but there are plenty of possible pitfalls that reporters should keep in mind as the states and districts they cover tackle implementation of the new law, a panel of experts said earlier this month at the Education Writers Association conference on ESSA.

“It’s a fun time to be a state education reporter, I hope, because there’s a lot of change going on at the state level and the district level,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Under the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, “many of the changes we had to make were prescribed to us by the federal government,” Minnich said. ESSA, on the other hand “allows us an opportunity to balance the system” away from what many saw as over-reliance on tests, while staying focused on student results, Minnich added.

That sentiment sounds good to Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. But King said she’s worried that the law – which her organization supported somewhat reluctantly – might put too much emphasis on local control and not enough on the success of historically overlooked groups of kids, such as English-language learners, students with disabilities, racial minorities, and students from low-income families.

“We are skeptical and nervous, but also hopeful and optimistic,” she said.

In particular, King said she’s hoping states are able to develop accountability systems that offer support to “racially isolated” schools that might not have the capacity to change on their own, as well as schools that are doing well overall, but where a particular group of students may be underperforming.

For now, states are still in the brainstorming phase, thinking through how they can make the most of ESSA’s leeway.

Tony Smith, Illinois’ state superintendent, said he’s been taking ESSA’s call for inviting significant community input to heart. His agency is holding town hall meetings around the state to hear from educators, parents, and community members.

Ultimately, Smith said he wants Illinois’ plan to be about giving schools the tools they need to get better, not about punishing low performers.

“I just don’t think we can legislate for the few bad actors,” Smith told the EWA audience.

One of the most talked about changes in ESSA is a new requirement that states look beyond reading and math test scores in gauging school performance to factors such as school climate, student engagement, teacher engagement, and access to advanced coursework.

Reporters should look closely at how states – and ultimately schools – decide to tackle that twist, the panelists said.

It’s possible that in some places, the new information might not tell policymakers what they really need to know about a school, or help drive change, Minnich said.

For instance, he said, a state could choose to look at school climate and measure it through surveys. School leaders might then tell the teachers and students filing them out that “this is going to matter so please rate our school high,” he said. That’s not going to give policymakers or parents much usable information, he said.

But the provision could also prove powerful, Minnich said, particularly if states look at factors like access to advanced coursework that might lead them to address inequities between schools.

And Charmaine Mercer, the Washington, D.C. director of the Learning Policy Institute, a think tank, said she was impressed with California’s efforts to include factors that get at whether students are ready for college or the workplace in their systems.

King admitted she was initially skeptical of the new requirement. But she thinks states might receive compelling information if they consider factors like access to rigorous classes, or how often schools use exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspensions.

The true test for states will be whether their ESSA systems can actually change conditions in schools where achievement has lagged for years, Minnich said. “We’ve done fifteen years of testing and focusing on low performance and we haven’t made as big a dent as we need to with low-performing schools,” he said.

Under NCLB, districts had to use a set of pre-prescribed federal remedies with schools that weren’t progressing fast enough, like mandatory tutoring. But under ESSA, states and districts get the opportunity to come up with their own interventions, as long as they have some evidence to back them up.

That will allow states and districts to be “far more thoughtful about what interventions look like,” Mercer said. But for school improvement to work, states and districts need to be reaching out to their communities and getting their input and support for whatever strategy they choose, she added.

To help states think about what kinds of interventions might work, Minnich suggested reporters profile a school that’s made a lot of progress over the past several years, and another that’s fallen short, exploring the reasons behind their outcomes.

King, from the civil rights group, highlighted examples of recent journalism exploring inequities among school districts, including NPR’s school finance series and an examination by U.S. News & World Report’s at how federal dollars for poor schools are allocated.

Stories like these can help push states, districts, and even the federal government to look closely at the factors that cause some schools to founder for decades, she said.

“Investigative journalism is going to be so important,” King said. “We need reporters out there asking those questions.”