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Cautious optimism, and a lot of questions, about what the new federal education law will mean for Minnesota

In an effort to get a better understanding of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Minnesota Department of Education hosted an ESSA meeting earlier this week. 

In an effort to generate some deeper discussions, the Minnesota Department of Education hosted an ESSA meeting on Wednesday.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Minnesota’s preparations for the upcoming transition from the highly criticized No Child Left Behind law to its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act — commonly known as ESSA — are well under way.

Each state is tasked with taking the federally crafted education law, which has a list of non-negotiables, and hashing out the details of what the assessments, accountability measures and supports for under-performing schools will look like at the local level.

There’s lots of optimism surrounding the shift toward granting states and school districts more flexibility to do things like streamline and innovate state testing, capture more disaggregated student data, and customize their school rating systems and intervention strategies. But that optimism is tempered with a fair amount of caution from educators who are left wondering: How will Minnesota’s version of ESSA impact the day-to-day workload of teachers and administrators? And how, exactly, will these new guidelines help ensure that Minnesota’s students have access to a more equitable education system?

In an effort to generate some deeper discussions around these sorts of questions, the Minnesota Department of Education hosted an ESSA meeting earlier this week. State officials, district administrators, teachers, state department staff, education advocates and support staff packed into a conference room, along with two full overflow rooms, to hear what Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius had to say about the local status of ESSA and to voice their hopes for the new mandate.

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Few questions or comments were met with a definite response, however, as the Department of Education will not be submitting its ESSA implementation plan to the U.S. Department of Education for approval until March 2017. Until then, the state will be soliciting input from students, educators, schools, districts, community members and demographic subgroups.

To kick off one of the largest ESSA meetings the department has held so far, Cassellius encouraged attendees to focus in on a couple of objectives.

“I think we have two purposes here, as a community and as a state,” she said. “One is to define for our state: What’s a high quality education that every single child ought to have an opportunity to get? And then the second is: What are our federal requirements around an accountability plan so that we can intervene with the 5 percent of schools that we feel need the biggest amount of support?”

Lots of deliberating ahead

President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law in Dec. 2015. It replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that was enacted in 2001, which replaced the longstanding Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Under NCLB, Minnesota applied for and received a waiver in 2012 from the federal government to implement its own accountability system called the Multiple Measurements Rating. But even this system had its flaws. In addition to ranking schools based on a formula that few could actually explain, it had a lot of school and district officials frustrated that student growth wasn’t being properly weighted.

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius

This concern was raised more than once at the meeting Wednesday, and department staff were quick to acknowledge it. At this point, they seem quite receptive to criticisms of past systems since the goal is to come up with a new system that has greater buy-in.

Having already held a series of ESSA meetings this spring — on topics ranging from accountability to foster care and homeless youth — the department has identified a number of other emerging themes that will likely guide future discussions. These include the need to ensure that there’s diverse representation at community engagement sessions, that school climate or student health measures are considered for inclusion in the accountability system, that all the data be made easily accessible to the public, and that the new system should promote a more well-rounded education.

It’s a lot to deliberate in a fairly compact timeframe. Throughout this summer and fall, the department will facilitate meetings for a diverse range of focus groups to dig deeper into certain facets of ESSA and offer recommendations for improvement. Those who are interested in serving on a focus group are encouraged to contact the Department of Education directly.

Starting this fall and continuing through the end of the year, the department will be holding regional town-hall listening sessions. Five dates have been set, and more may be added as schools, districts, and organizations put forth requests to host additional community-input sessions.

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By January 2017, a draft version of the plan will be made available for public comment before the department submits its final draft to the U.S. Department of Education by March 2017.

Even though the state’s NCLB waiver will expire on Aug. 1, nothing will really change during the 2016-17 school year since the new ESSA regulations won’t be ready to go into effect until the 2017-18 school year.

Some key changes

While the state continues to wait for some federal guidelines that have yet to be finalized, and Minnesotans continue to wait for the state to adopt its ESSA implementation strategy, those looking to weigh in should note a couple of key changes coming down the pipeline that will need to be hashed out further:

  • The teacher evaluation system required under federal waivers will no longer be required. However, states must somehow ensure that low-income students and students of color are not being taught at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.
  • Schools and districts will still be required to track and report students’ proficiency in math and reading, along with high school graduation rates. Currently, Minnesota also monitors student growth on state tests — an added measure the state will likely retain during the transition. Two new buckets of accountability measures include the English language development of English Language Learners, plus at least one additional indicator of “school quality or student success.” Depending on the state’s priorities, that could mean adding measures for student engagement, postsecondary readiness, school climate or a number of other possibilities.
  • Student data will be further disaggregated to help ensure underperforming groups are getting the targeted interventions they need. In addition to breaking down all data by race, gender, English Language Learner status, economic status, disability status, and migrant status, it will also reflect outcomes for students who are homeless, in foster care and under the care of active duty members of the military.

  • Academic standards must align with entrance requirements for postsecondary opportunities.

  • States will still be required to identify low-performing schools and intervene on the behalf of the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools and all high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent. Under its waiver, Minnesota adopted the Focus Rating system. This is an opportunity to revise this system, which many educators have become critical of over the years.