After much talk and testimony at a nine-hour meeting, the State Board of Education made modest changes last week to its draft of the state plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Board members are confident the plan will soon be ready to pass along to the federal government for approval. Members of a coalition of two dozen civil rights and student advocacy organizations said the changes will do little to improve a plan that’s still vague and weak.
“After months of feedback and engagement, the current plan still doesn’t address the core issues that we know are absolutely essential to support high-need students,” Samantha Tran, senior director of education programming for the nonprofit Children Now, wrote in an email. “The state seems to be abdicating an essential civil rights role, and it’s disheartening.”
The comment reflects a core disagreement over how most board members and advocacy groups view the purpose and value of the plan. In it, California must spell out for the U.S. Department of Education how it will spend about $2.5 billion in federal funding to improve achievement for low-income children, English learners and migrant children and to train teachers and school leaders. The plan must also explain how the state will identify and help transform the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving federal money.
Civil rights advocates see the plan as a vehicle to prod the state board to elaborate on the new school and district accountability system that the board has created and to use the leverage of federal law to hold them to their commitment to make local control work for low-achieving children.
But what advocacy groups see as an opportunity, board members see as a potential trap. Gov, Jerry Brown and the board tangled with the Obama administration over its enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. Under the new law, Congress has given states more flexibility, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has vowed to support local control. But Brown and the California Department of Education remain wary about promises they make, since the law will likely remain in effect for more than a decade and be subject to differing interpretations by future administrations.
Barbara Murchison, the state education department lead person on the plan, compared the state’s approach to that of a “deposition,” in which the state will meet the law’s requirements by answering what’s asked, but volunteering little more.
State Board President Michael Kirst summed up his view — Why cede control over an evolving state accountability system to the federal government? — in a statement preceding the discussion on Wednesday. “The state plan is essentially a contract with the federal government,” he said. “I understand that some stakeholders would like to see more details in this plan. But it is not a vehicle to create new law or regulations. A lack of specific detail in the plan does not mean that we will not flesh out that detail as we move forward implementing these programs.”
Staff of the California Department of Education held webinars and a dozen regional hearings in May and June on the initial draft of the state plan and read the more than 700 public comments it received. The state board meeting agenda included a summary of the feedback by the California Practitioners Advisory Group, which includes teachers, researchers and county and school district administrators, and department staff did incorporate some of the group’s comments and suggestions, which the state board adopted in its instructions for plan revisions.
These include setting aside staff development funding for principal training, creating a strategy for teacher shortages in math, science and special education and tracking the percentages of inexperienced, ineffective and misassigned teachers in low-performing schools.
But the board’s suggested revisions largely ignored the critique and recommendations of the Equity Coalition (see here and here), which called for stronger actions and more details in the plan. Some of the disagreements include:
Goals for improvement
The board is setting seven years as the timeframe for the lowest-performing schools to reach high achievement goals, whether on academic tests, graduation rates or other performance indicators, but is letting districts set their own interim goals. That begs the question: What should the state or county office do for a school that has made no progress after three or four years — and clearly won’t make the seven-year goal?
Plans for assistance
The state board wants to create one system for providing extensive help to the 300 lowest-performing schools that it must identify for the federal government and extensive and more limited help for districts that are identified as low-performing under the state accountability system. The staff is recommending a regional system, with lead county offices of education coordinating assistance by other counties, private and nonprofit providers, networks of districts and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency.
But staff have presented only a high-level framework, with no information on how the system would actually work and what forms of assistance districts can anticipate receiving. The board hasn’t pressed for specifics — which means operational details likely won’t be part of the state plan.
“The plan is far too vague. Refusing to lay out firm commitments will not inspire confidence in the public that the promise of equity will be achieved,” Carrie Hahnel, deputy director of research and policy at The Education Trust-West, an Equity Coalition member, told the board.
The new law requires that the state take steps to ensure that low-income, minority students are not disproportionately served by teachers who are “ineffective, inexperienced teachers or out-of-field” — those teaching classes they’re not qualified to teach.
The state plan will require collecting data on teacher distribution but will not require fixing lowest-performing schools with disproportionate numbers of unqualified or ineffective teachers. Coalition members want stronger action and argue achievement disparities will not close until excellent teachers teach in the schools struggling most.
The state board is also defining an effective teacher as one who holds a teaching credential. That, to critics, is a minimal criterion and avoids the contentious issues of teacher performance, as measured by student achievement, student or parent surveys or teachers’ value to the school and impact on other teachers.
“The state took the path of least resistance when it proposed that an ineffective teacher is one who is not fully certified,” Hahnel wrote in an email. “Certifications have little to do with a teacher’s impact on student learning.”
The board’s wariness is not surprising; it doesn’t want to get out ahead of the Legislature. There is general agreement that the state’s current teacher evaluation law itself is outdated and ineffective. Recommendations in a report by a task force created by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Blueprint for Great Schools, received widespread praise. But teachers unions and school district and administrator groups have been deadlocked over specifics, and bills have gone nowhere.
In a letter to the board, Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates, another coalition organization, recognized the board’s difficulty but suggested that, while it waits for the Legislature to act, the board should pursue other measures to identify students’ access to effective teaching. Those measures could include teacher attendance, teacher turnover and surveys of teachers regarding access to opportunities to collaborate with each other and levels of support from principals. The state does not currently collect that kind of information.
Choosing lowest-performing schools
The new law requires states to explain how they will select the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools requiring comprehensive assistance. In California that’s about 300 schools out of roughly 6,000 receiving federal aid for low-income students.
The state board last week adopted a methodology that parallels how it identifies school districts needing help — by using the California School Dashboard. The dashboard ranks performance on multiple indicators, including test results in math and reading, suspension rates and high school graduation rates, by using five colors — red, the lowest, then orange, yellow, green and blue, the highest.
The board agreed that schools with all red indicators or all red and one orange indicator should be on the list. But that’s only 90 schools. Board members were receptive to a staff recommendation to select the remaining 200 schools from the 181 districts that were also identified as needing assistance, on the theory that help for low-performing districts and schools should be done in tandem. But the board decided to delay the final selection until January, when it will have another year’s worth of data, including initial information on two new indicators: chronic absenteeism and a college and career readiness indicator.
The coalition criticized using dashboard colors to create the school list as potentially imprecise and inaccurate (see extensive critique of the dashboard methodology by Rob Manwaring, a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Children Now). And it said the board will likely miss some of the lowest-performing schools if it looks only in districts identified as needing help, less than a fifth of the districts in the state. Most of the districts got on the list because of the low performance of only one student group, students with disabilities. At the meeting last week, board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon questioned the effectiveness of the method of identifying districts needing help, given the achievement gaps statewide facing Latino and African-American students.
Department staff will release an updated draft, incorporating the board’s suggestions, next month. Brown’s staff will then have a month to suggest changes before the board’s final vote on the plan in mid-September.