Opinion

A Teacher’s Mini-Lesson on ESSA: The Federal K-12 Law Places Burden on States to Improve; It’s Time They Stepped Up

By Sean Worley | March 19, 2018

Champions of the Every Student Succeeds Act have long argued that the newest law would swing the pendulum of control back to the states and, by doing so, unleash the innovative potential of local leaders.

So far, however, states have fallen flat in their plans to dramatically improve their education systems. Their ESSA plans have been plagued by a lack of detail, unclear definitions of success, and only loose frameworks for how they will support their most struggling schools.

The Bellwether Education Partners’ independent evaluation summarized this shortcoming best in its December publication:

“Instead of taking the opportunity to design their own school improvement strategies, states mostly produced plans that are vague and noncommittal about how they will support low-performing schools. Some states identified a list of evidence-based interventions that “may” happen in low-performing schools, but very few outlined specific timelines and interventions that would occur in those schools.”

I’ve spent my entire career working in schools that have been labeled as “struggling,” or “priority,” or “focus.” Regardless of the label, these are the schools that need additional support to improve.

ESSA says these schools should be identified as needing “comprehensive support and improvement.” But our students, teachers, and staff need more than an amorphous idea of what “may” happen.

This, however, would require state education leaders to identify and understand the root causes of these schools’ low performance. Given the lack of details in state plans, it’s hard to believe these state leaders know how to support identified schools.

As a teacher, I would see evidence of such misunderstanding as a prompt to reteach my students. So for state leaders, here’s my mini-lesson on what needs to happen when supporting struggling schools.

1 Staff Placement Matters.

When considering taking a job in a new school, teachers evaluate a variety of factors — location, safety, school climate, and student achievement. Unfortunately, these factors don’t usually lead them to struggling schools.

Given this, states should help those schools develop new staffing models or incentive systems to attract more effective teachers. While ESSA requires states to report disparities in access to effective teachers, states need to go further (as well as more clearly define effectiveness).

Given additional resources, schools can provide financial incentives to attract effective teachers to the areas of highest need. This isn’t a pipe dream. My district, DC Public Schools, already works to combat this inequity by offering bigger bonuses to teachers working in schools with high poverty rates.

Monetary compensation can be difficult to sustain or scale large enough to attract the necessary number of teachers. States should also consider providing schools with resources that can offer less financially driven incentives. One of the largest reasons for teachers leaving the classroom is poor working conditions. Schools could provide highly effective teachers with increased flexibility in their schedules and professional development opportunities, and offer more opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles on campus.

2 Curriculum Matters.

Novice teachers are more likely to be placed in low-performing schools than their veteran peers. While this tendency alone is concerning, novice teachers do not have the same experience with developing rigorous and effective curriculum as their veteran peers do.

I know this firsthand. In my first year in the classroom, I was charged with developing a year-long chemistry course, given only a set of standards and sample assessment questions. This did not go so well. Putting energy toward developing a curriculum came second to learning how to just manage my classroom.

A 2017 report by Learning First explains how our international counterparts have already connected the dots between high-quality curriculum and novice-teacher success. Not only does access to robust and rigorous material benefit teachers themselves, but also students have shown to achieve higher when presented with high-quality resources. It seems there is some hope here in the United States, as Louisiana may be taking the lead on this type of support.

Once states have identified schools that need their support, they should examine the curricular resources currently in use by the teachers. If these are limited or ineffective, states should provide resources to the schools to purchase or develop better curricula – materials that are more robust than mere guiding standards or performance expectations. Additionally, the state has an obligation to connect struggling schools with experts who have created successful materials. Communication between schools will make it more likely that teachers and staff will share curricular resources.

3 School Leadership Matters.

When a school is struggling, it seems outside observers always want to focus on the teachers and what’s happening in the classroom. Though it’s a seemingly logical approach, the magnifying glass needs to shift to the leadership in these schools. Given that school leadership can have significant impacts on student achievement and is one of the major factors contributing to teachers leaving the profession, this is an area states must consider when supporting struggling schools.

When a school is struggling, principals are too often burdened with extra tasks (e.g., creating extensive school improvement plans, reflecting on current practice, attending data review meetings) and under heavy pressure from their district offices. School leaders must be held accountable for the results of their students and staff, but they also need support that gives them a realistic chance of turning things around.

This, of course, won’t be a simple conversation. School leaders face a multitude of challenges.

Does the school leader struggle to make connections between instructional needs and school initiatives? Is the school leader spending too much time addressing operational needs instead of improving instruction?

States should have put these questions and others front and center in their ESSA plans. Most didn’t. They now have an obligation to provide resources to the school leaders to improve their practice, similar to the approach taken with improving teachers and their pedagogy.

While states have missed the mark on their ESSA plans (and the U.S. Department of Education hasn’t done much to push back on these), they still have the chance to prove that the return of local control can be an effective way of improving American education.

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States have until their first identification of struggling schools after this school year to show they know what to do. I urge our state leaders to abide by these recommendations and develop more detailed support plans before schools are identified.

As a teacher, I have a responsibility and obligation to create detailed and extensive lesson plans for every class. It is time state leaders are held to the same expectations for their support of struggling schools.

Sean Worley has worked in urban education for the past five years as a high school science teacher and instructional coach. He started his career with Teach For America in Sacramento, California, and now teaches at Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.

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