About the same time that this week’s deadline passed for feedback on Colorado’s school-accountability plan, the US Department Education pretty much said: don’t bother—continuing its hands-off, eyes-off, everything-off approach to implementing the new federal education law (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA). And despite ESSA being in the news quite a bit lately, I’m sensing that it’s not exactly hot dinner-table or Facebook conversation topics. But, especially in a choice-heavy state like Colorado, the substance of what ESSA covers often is.
Beneath all of the wonky education-policy jargon, the ESSA plan boils down to answering the questions: How good are our schools? And what do we do with the ones that aren’t good enough? And whether the feds are watching, those are important questions to be answered.
And we’re fortunate in Colorado to not be starting from scratch or trying to fix a broken system. Since 2009, we’ve had the School Performance Framework accountability system in place.
So, as a parent, I can already check and see how my kids’ school is performing, in some detail, and compare it to other schools in the area and across the state.
And the state’s draft ESSA plan pretty much stays the course. So while we’re pretty safe from pulling a “California” and moving from a fairly straightforward rating system to a head-scratcher, there’s still room for improvement and areas of school accountability to keep a close eye on.
Here are five important ones:
- Make the system more parent friendly: Right now, the rating categories are, from best to worst: Performance Plan, Improvement Plan, Priority Improvement Plan, and Turnaound Plan. Not exactly intuitive or crystal clear to parents. And it’s not easy enough for parents to find a school’s rating. When I googled our kids’ school: (“Bear Canyon Elementary School SPF rating”), I got this back, which had our 2011 rating fairly high up. But no sign of our 2016 rating, which I eventually found by rooting around the Colorado Department of Education website, in an excel spreadsheet with every other school in the state. CDE doesn’t have to look far for examples of better systems. Both Denver Public Schools and the Colorado School Grades coalition of ed-reform groups have them.
- Don’t mess with the test: Like several other states, Colorado has talked about ditching the PARCC standardized tests. And a testing-reduction bill passed in 2015 has a provision that allows school districts to pilot alternate assessments. But as other states have found, at great cost and disruption, coming up with a new and improved test is really hard. And PARCC, while not perfect, is darn good. A strong accountability system needs an objective, high-bar measure of student achievement. That’s PARCC.
- Honor the honor system: The US Senate just joined the House in ditching all of the regulations that the Obama Administration put in place to add federal teeth to ESSA. It’s clear the Trump Administration has no taste for paying attention to school quality and making sure kids are served well and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. We’re pretty much back to the honor system for states to do right by families and pay attention to school quality. That’s the right thing to do, whether Washington is watching or not.
- Stay strong on the turnaround challenge: The hardest part of all of this is having the courage to take strong action when persistently struggling schools aren’t showing enough improvement. The state is about to take on that challenge with 12 schools, and that didn’t go so well the last time it happened. But this time around CDE has a turnaround foundation on which to build, and there are examples across the country of this strategy making a real difference for kids. It’s easy to avoid the painful and politically difficult conversations around state intervention. The state should continue to stand up and stand tall for families who need better schools.
- Set a high bar: Without getting too deep into the “cut score” and “normative measure” weeds of wonkiness, the essential question is: Should you set performance expectations using norms (how other students/schools are doing) or using what students will need to be able to do when they get to college or the workforce. The state’s draft plan goes the normative route, which is clean and comfortable, but doesn’t set expectations high enough, especially for students of color and low-income students.