Gonzales — Education After the ESSA Rollback: What States Can Do Now to Lead the Charge on School Equity

Last week, the U.S. Senate followed the House of Representatives in voting to roll back accountability regulations related to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The regulations covered a host of issues, including how states will measure student and school success, timelines for identifying and improving underperforming schools, and how states report on and rate schools.
Supporters of the repeal claim that states and districts will now have greater flexibility in how they meet the law’s requirements, but others worry the move will create chaos and uncertainty and potentially inhibit flexibility among state education agencies currently writing plans detailing how they will implement ESSA.
If these rules are wiped off the books, does that mean that states will be held less accountable for ensuring every student can, in fact, succeed? Not necessarily.
For one, some states have already indicated their intention, with or without the Department of Education’s regulations, to move ahead with their ESSA plans.
If, as it appears, the current administration decides that the federal government should exercise a more limited oversight role, it is even more important for state leaders to be at the forefront of accountability and ensuring equity for all. And although ESSA has played an important role in focusing debates on accountability and school improvement, the bigger question is how states will leverage their roles to advance equity in education writ large.
Equity is about much more than setting long-term goals for closing achievement gaps on state tests. The inequities that our students face are complex. Inequitable access to advanced coursework — as well as core subjects — persists. Low-income students and students of color also have inequitable access to high-speed internet, to safe passages like crosswalks and crossing guards, to after-school programs, to fair discipline practices, to high-quality pre-kindergarten, to counselors and career tech programs — the list can go on and on. These are challenges that state and local education leaders must consider, regardless of what happens with federal oversight.
Fortunately, state leaders have access to many tools that can help them make equity a priority, if they are serious about it. In fact, just last month, six state education chiefs from red, blue, and purple states joined the Aspen Institute and the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C., to publicly declare their commitment to advancing educational equity for all students, laying out the specific actions they are taking to reach those goals. As outlined in “Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs,” state chiefs and their education agencies are uniquely positioned to take ownership of this work and lead it to successful implementation.
State education chiefs can and should use their positions to create urgency around equity, communicate a vision of what progress for students looks like, and galvanize educators, parents, and community advocates to be active participants in the work. The absence of ESSA regulations underscores the responsibility and opportunity for state leaders to advance an agenda that leads to greater equity. Some specific actions are:
  • Leading state education agency-wide trainings that help staff better understand how poverty, race, and disability affect a student’s experiences in and out of the classroom.
  • Providing guidance and incentives that encourage districts to explore and select culturally sustaining instructional materials, including vetting and pre-clearing for procurement of the high-quality materials and providing crosswalks or alignment guides to ease the burden on districts.
  • Sponsoring student surveys to measure and improve school climate and culture, particularly to better understand the needs and challenges faced by students who are low-income, of color, or LGBTQ-identifying, or who have disabilities.
  • Convening a council of outside stakeholders to serve as watchdogs on their progress.
Every state has unique challenges that require careful assessment and tailored solutions. But with the federal government playing a less overt role, all eyes are now on the states to take the lead for equity.
What they commit to, and how they hold themselves accountable, will determine their future success, and the success of their students.

Danielle M. Gonzales is assistant director for policy with the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, where she helps supervise a network of senior congressional education staffers and grow and deepen the program’s education policy work.

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