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Proposed ESSA Rule Emphasizes Academics, Values Engagement

Think back to before the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed.

It really wasn’t that long ago that debates over school accountability measures almost sunk the federal education law before it got off the ground.

Civil rights groups pushed for federal school performance measures to help at-risk students and states’ rights advocates lobbied for more local control over how schools were assessed and what steps to take to improve them.

And virtually everyone wanted fewer standardized tests.

Now, the Department of Education has released its proposed rulemaking regarding school accountability—and some education experts expect the debate to continue.

So what do the new rules actually say? And how would they affect the way you engage students, parents, and the broader school community?

Here’s what you need to know.

More indicators, academics still key
When it passed in December, ESSA was lauded for expanding the lens through which the federal government would gauge student and school performance.

Under ESSA, schools would no longer be measured strictly on academic performance (think graduation rates or test scores). Rather states, which have more leeway under the law, would also be encouraged to consider other so-called non-academic indicators (think school climate and teacher engagement).

The latest proposed rules maintain these new accountability measures, and a state’s right to choose the indicators it wants to use. But academic indicators, such as test scores, would still carry the lion’s share of influence when it comes to performance measures.

As Andrew Ujifusa reports in Ed Week, “Altogether, the academic factors would have to have a ‘much greater’ weight than the measures of school quality or student success in state accountability systems.” However, the new rule does not set clear standards on how much greater that weight should be.

So what’s the bottom line? As the rule stands, indicators such as student and community engagement, school climate, and others will be important measures of school success, but not as important as academics.

Saving failing schools
So, the proposal provides some clarity into how the federal government would weigh its priorities. But when a school is deemed as “struggling,” what happens then?

The proposed rule doesn’t prescribe a system for states to classify failing schools in need of “comprehensive support,” though it does dictate when states can and can’t remove that label.

And—no surprise here—academic indicators are key.

As Ujifisa writes in a separate update for Ed Week, making progress in areas like school climate alone doesn’t mean a school is no longer underperforming. Schools have to show progress in at least one academic indicator to jettison the label of a “failing” school.

Under the proposed rule that turnaround could still have very deep roots in community engagement.

Educators, for example, would have to include input from parents, teachers, and community members in a draft strategy to fix failing schools, for example. They also would have to engage parents in the development of a school “report card,” which not only clearly lists test scores and graduation rates, but also per-student expenditures and other factors.

Engagement still key
At this point, it’s important to remember that these rules changes are not final—yet.

A series of commenting periods and other negotiations will take place before any changes become law.

Rep. John King (R-Minn), chairman of the House Education Committee and a leader in the passage of ESSA, told Ed Week he intends to use “every tool available” to make sure the new rules live up to “the letter and intent of the law.”

If the new rules were adopted today, student and community engagement would be important factors in determining school success. But academic factors would still trump them.

Either way, it’s clear that the proposed rules and the larger law value parent and community engagement in ways that previous federal education laws did not.

Your school community expects to be part of your decision-making process.

How do you engage your parents and other members of your community about important rules and policy changes in your district? Tell us in the comments.

As you implement the new rules under ESSA? Are you looking for ways to make community engagement a bigger priority in your schools? Here’s three ways to do that today.