Exclusive: The 29 Experts Joining Forces to Give State ESSA Plans a Harder Accountability Look

Updated April 6
State plans to carry out the Every Student Succeeds Act will be getting a second — and perhaps tougher — look.
Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success have assembled a group of advocates, education experts, and former state officials to independently review the first round of ESSA plans submitted in early April, apart from the required federal process.
The goal, the groups said, is to serve as an external check on the federal peer review process, and to look at whether states are going beyond compliance with the law to really set up a system that will accomplish their visions for K-12 education.
In general, the rubric will favor strong accountability systems, tied to college- and career-ready standards for all students. Reviewers will look for ambitious and achievable goals and for “guardrails” to focus attention on students who need the most help. They’ll also be on the lookout for bad accountability systems that can be “gamed” in unproductive ways and systems that push all students to a diploma even if they don’t learn anything along the way.
“The peer review process that the department will do is important; it’s required by the statute. I think it’s also important to have a review process that looks at not just are you complying with the minimum requirements of the law, but is what’s being proposed likely to do what’s right for kids, and that’s what this review is intended to do,” said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education and one of the more than two dozen reviewers.
The two groups promise a “candid review,” though it won’t cover everything required to be in state plans.
Fewer than 20 states have said they’re submitting plans to comply with the Education Department’s first deadline, which was April 3. There’s some leeway to that date because the department issued a new template March 13 and, by statute, governors must have 30 days to review the final plan before it is submitted. The second ESSA plan deadline is Sept. 18.
Congress last month blocked tougher accountability regulations proposed by the Obama administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged to require plans to include only what’s “absolutely necessary” to meet the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which shifts much of the power and decision-making for education policy back to the states.
(The 74: DeVos Pitches New ESSA Flexibility to Big-City Schools Leaders, Gets Tepid Response)
“Now that states have submitted their plans, we are delighted to shine a light on states that have built meaningful systems of accountability, and to offer guidance about how states can make their plans even more powerful. Importantly, our effort will provide a forum for all states to learn from each other to ensure the best education possible for their students,” Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, said in a press release.
In addition to a list of overall strengths and weaknesses, each state plan will be rated in nine areas on a scale of one (“This practice should be avoided by other states”) to five (“This could be a potential model for other states”).
The nine ratings include whether the state’s accountability system masks the performance of some subgroups of students, whether its plans to identify schools for support are likely to fix on those most in need, and whether the state plan has enough emphasis on both proficiency and growth in test scores.
(The 74: The Growth vs. Proficiency Debate)
More than 25 reviewers have been confirmed so far, and more may be added. The list includes advocates and former state officials from across the political spectrum, including:
  • Tony Bennett, a Republican and the former schools chief in Florida and Indiana
  • Gerard Robinson, now a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, previously state education chief for Republicans in Virginia and Florida, and an adviser to the Trump campaign
  • Former Obama Education Department officials Joanne Weiss, now a consultant, and Scott Sargrad, now with the liberal Center for American Progress
  • Conor P. Williams, founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group, senior researcher at the New America Foundation, and a frequent contributor to The 74
  • Elliott Asp, senior fellow, policy and practice, Achieve;
  • Julia Rafal-Baer, chief operating officer, Chiefs for Change
  • Dale Chu, deputy director, America Succeeds
  • Barbara Davidson, president, Standards Work
  • Eric Guckian, vice president for alliances, Leadership for Educational Equity
  • Terry Holliday, board chairman, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
  • Christy Hovanetz, senior policy fellow, Foundation for Excellence in Education
  • Lindsay Jones, vice president, chief advocacy and policy officer, National Center for Learning Disabilities
  • Liz King, senior policy analyst, and Gisela Ariza, policy analyst, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Aimee Rogstad Guidera, president and CEO, and Paige Kowalski, executive vice president, Data Quality Campaign 
  • Charmaine Mercer, senior researcher, Learning Policy Institute
  • Doug Mesecar, adjunct scholar, Lexington Institute
  • Kerry Moll, vice president of policy and advocacy, Stand for Children
  • Rashidah Morgan, senior consultant, Education First
  • Gavin Payne, consultant, GPC Advisors, LLC
  • Ryan Reyna, senior associate, Education Strategy Group
  • Martha Thurlow, director, National Center on Educational Outcomes
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic growth, Conexión Américas
  • Anne Wicks, director of education reform, George W. Bush Institute
  • John Bailey, strategic advisor, senior official in the George W. Bush administration
  • Christy Wolfe, senior policy advisor, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 
States have led the way in holding themselves accountable for improving education for all students, and ESSA presents an opportunity to continue that leadership and take goals to the next level, former Delaware governor Jack Markell said in a release.
“No one has a monopoly on good ideas and this independent peer review is an important step in that goal-setting process, providing an outside check from highly experienced experts on whether states are fulfilling their promise to the students they are educating by moving forward, and not backward,” Markell said.
The group will be working toward releasing a consensus report, with the goal to publish it in June.
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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