‘Disappointing but Not Surprising’ — California’s ESSA Plan Gets Some of the Harshest Feedback Yet From Washington

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report

California’s plan to improve its schools received some of the toughest criticism in the nation from the federal Department of Education, which came as no surprise to parents and education advocates, who will get another chance this week to tell the state how they want their schools improved.

On Tuesday, the state has invited the public to a stakeholder meeting in Sacramento to weigh in on California’s response to the federal feedback, which the state board published Friday. People can also watch and react online.

Each state is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to come up with its own plan to improve schools. California submitted its plan in September, and the federal government sent its first feedback Dec. 21, saying the plan was short on details and accountability — which parents and advocates have been saying for months.

Washington gave California two weeks to respond, by Monday, but state officials requested an extension until Jan. 26 so members of the state board of education can iron out their response at their Jan. 18–19 meeting, said California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there are serious concerns with California’s plan,” said Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution. “It’s disappointing but not surprising. We had serious concerns with the first draft and didn’t see significant improvements” in the plan California filed in September, which shows that the state continues to ignore parent input given over the past year and a half.

“Parent voices were not heard,” Litt said. “Families at underserved schools primarily want to know what the targets are to improve the schools, what happens if the targets are not met, and what is the timeline.”

The federal feedback was extensive, exceeding what most other states received. “California got dinged for a lot more than other states,” said Adam Ezring, director of policy for the Collaborative for Student Success, which together with Bellwether Education Partners is providing an independent review of each state’s school accountability plan. “Parents want to know how their kids’ schools are performing, and how their students are performing.”

Ezring’s organization’s review ranked California’s accountability plan at the bottom, giving it the lowest scores in two categories out of nine, and called the state’s new dashboard that tracks school performance complicated and incomplete. “If the overall system is this confusing, it’s hard to envision how parents make sense of the results of their schools and what that means for their students,” he said.

The federal law mandates that the states explain how they will track student achievement, identify their lowest-performing schools, and provide direct accountability and oversight to improve those schools.

The government’s feedback to California included:

  • California’s plan doesn’t show how the state will identify its lowest-performing schools so they can receive extra support.
  • It’s not clear how the state will ensure progress is actually made at low-performing schools.
  • It doesn’t include high schools in its academic achievement goals.
  • It doesn’t show how the state will measure improvements among student subgroups, such as English learners, or provide long-term goals for all English learners.
  • It’s not clear how the state will support schools with student subgroups who are consistently underperforming.
  • It doesn’t describe how it will hold alternative education schools, such as continuation high schools, accountable.
  • It’s not clear that the state will give more weight to academic progress over other measurements of school quality and student success, such as suspension rates.
  • It doesn’t describe the extent to which low-income and minority children are being taught by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.

The preliminary draft to be presented to the state board will be posted on the state’s website along with all the previous drafts.

Rob Manwaring, the senior policy and fiscal adviser for the advocacy group Children Now, said he would be surprised if California could answer all the federal questions so quickly.

“The most egregious issue is that every other state plan I’ve read has a central component of a growth model that shows progress from one year to the next, and that’s still a work in progress in California,” Manwaring said. Parents also need to know when something in their children’s schools needs serious attention, he said.

“The [state] board does a good job at taking a lot of input, and that doesn’t mean they listen very often,” said Manwaring, who has written several letters to the board during the public input process on the ESSA plan. “It doesn’t address equity issues, and the achievement gaps don’t get closed enough.”

But Manwaring said it’s important that parents know that delays in getting the state’s ESSA plan together won’t mean their schools will suddenly lose money. “The federal government has been pretty resistant to cutting states’ funding.”

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of the advocacy group EdVoice, said, “California submitted an incomplete plan, and it was confirmed by the feds — it was a dereliction of its mission.

“We’re in 2018 and we have huge achievement gaps,” he said, noting that California now has three years of test scores from the state’s Smarter Balanced achievement tests given each spring. “The results are very dismal. California is last in mathematics when it comes to kids in poverty. … Parents that are disadvantaged and high-poverty are seeing their children still not getting an equitable opportunity to learn.”

He added, “For the California economy to be competitive, education is the engine, but it’s not working for an increasing proportion of kids.”

The extent of the federal concerns may signal it will be a long time before California parents start seeing state-mandated improvements in their schools. But that doesn’t prevent individual school districts from acting now to fix their weakest schools, advocates said.

“This is a good opportunity for a district like LAUSD to step up and do something if California does not take it seriously and submits another weak plan,” Litt said.

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