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When it comes to ESSA, don’t wait for change to happen to you

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act doesn’t officially kick in until next year, but educators in Idaho aren’t waiting around for change.

The Idaho State Board of Education recently approved a preliminary accountability system to be used when ESSA takes effect, according to Education Week. The state’s new “dashboard”-style accountability system will track both academic and non-academic indicators of school success, from traditional test scores to student engagement.

While proposed U.S. Department of Education regulations would require states to rank schools based on a set of metrics, such as student performance, Idaho’s system bucks that requirement. State officials hope the federal government will reconsider its ranking requirement after witnessing the success of Idaho’s dashboard.

That’s assuming, of course, that the dashboard succeeds.

In the meantime, Idaho, like other states, is asking school leaders and members of the public to weigh in on its new accountability system. And that’s exactly what school leaders should be doing.

In a recent webinar, “Everything you need to know about ESSA: How to demystify non-academic indicators,” I explained how ESSA broadens the scope of school and student performance, and gives more power to states and school districts in determining the accountability systems that work for them. And I encouraged local school leaders to begin reaching out to state education departments now, to ensure that they have input into how these accountability systems are developed and adopted.

Toward the end of the session, I entertained several questions from educators. Many of them focused on how to make their voices—and those of their communities—heard before the new rules and regulations governing ESSA go into effect.

If you’re looking for a few ways to include your school community in conversations about ESSA and accountability this school year, here’s hoping these ideas can help you too.

Q: You talk about not waiting for states and making our voices heard now. But what if states don’t listen? Won’t we be spinning our wheels?

A: My argument here is you’re not guaranteed to be heard, and they may not listen to what you have to say, but if you don’t step up and share what your thoughts are, I can guarantee that the changes you’d like to see may not happen.

I think it’s important to realize that we are our best advocates, and sometimes our worst enemies. And, if we want to be living in this accountability system in which there is this helplessness we can, but I believe that the public right now in the states have an opportunity to share what’s best for students. We need to touch everything as if “it’s students first—what’s best for our kids”—and then it’s more likely that people will listen.

Q: What’s the best way to reach out to states to ensure our voices count?

A: From my vantage point, the more data you have behind your argument, the better. So, if you are soliciting support from your parent community, using the organizations that are in place—whether it’s your PTA, your PTSA, your PTOs, whether it’s advocacy groups through professional associations with your staff—it’s all about making sure that you have numbers behind your argument, along with the research.

I think ESSA really opened the door for us to include some of that foundational research about what influences student achievement. Now, at the state level, we have to ensure that the accountability piece that comes into play is meaningful for your district and your schools.

If they (the public) don’t participate, my fear is that we’re going to be regretting it and we’re going to have a backlash, something similar to NCLB ten years into the actual legislation, rather than taking the ownership now and getting it right.

Q: How can we ensure we’re getting a wide representation of community engagement when asking state officials about ESSA?

If you want to inform your state’s public input sessions, there are two approaches that I would take.

  1. Use the resources we’re going to give you regarding engaging your community in the conversation (see below). Use that information to say “This is what my community has to say about state accountability, and non-academic indicators, and testing, and how to balance this.” And put out your numbers: “We held three engagement sessions or community forums. We conducted a survey. We had focus groups.” Whatever you did to get that information. Then put that in the hands of the state. (Note: After my presentation, I sent three resources to attendees. Those can be found here.)
  2. The other thing I would do is argue at the state level that they need to open up public inputs beyond, “Let’s have a session in a region of the state, face to face.” It’s the 21st century. Online is more likely to aggregate a greater amount of input than face to face. You don’t have enough time to process and travel across a state to get sufficient input. These committees that the states have put up have gargantuan tasks and for them to do this face-to-face, I think is short-sighted. Put that input form into your district newsletters. Let people know that this is going on and let the states then handle the information to inform what the accountability plan is. And if you are advocating for one position on one particular indicator over another indicator, let them know why and let them know what it is and let them tell you what their thoughts are. Bring the public back into public education.

Developing new accountability systems in your schools this year?  Download The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Want to watch Dr. Knobloch’s full presentation? Simply download it here.