With only two meetings left before a mid-September deadline, the State Board of Education is feeling the heat to make progress on the state plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Two of the unsettled issues the board will delve into this week are the criteria for choosing the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools needing assistance and a framework for a coherent system of oversight and assistance in a state with nearly 1,000 school districts and more than 10,000 schools.
In lengthy letters, civil rights and advocacy groups in particular criticized the school selection methodology as seriously flawed. They also called for more details on how assistance would work, who’d provide it and for clearer expectations and benchmarks of progress. A lot of changes are needed in the next 60 days, before submission to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to make a credible plan, they said.
“The draft plan offers far too few details regarding how school improvement will happen in schools identified as needing help,” wrote the Equity Coalition, composed of two dozen statewide and local advocacy organizations, in an analysis. “It describes some elements that it ‘may include’ without any firm commitments.”
The state board received a draft of the state plan in May; the state Department of Education has held statewide meetings and received extensive comments from the public and school and advocacy groups. Based on the suggestions and guidance from the state board this week, the department will produce a revised version in August, and the state board will pass the final version in mid-September.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015, governs how California can spend about $2.5 billion in federal funding, most of it in Title I aid for low-income children. In return, the state must lay out plans for improving performance of the lowest-achieving schools and student subgroups, including African-American students and students with disabilities. It also sets requirements for spending hundreds of millions of funding for teacher instruction, English learners, and homeless and migrant children.
Frustrated by what it considered heavy-handed federal interference under the No Child Left Behind Act, which the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced, Congress has given states more control over decisions and money under the new law. The Trump administration rescinded many of the new law’s regulations that President Barack Obama pushed through late last year.
The state board, in turn, has said it plans to make the most of the flexibility and to make the federal plan adhere to the state’s approach to school improvement and accountability, not the other way around.
But states like California, expecting a lighter hand from a Trump administration, may find that federal approval is not as quick or easy as they have anticipated.
Initial reviews of some of the plans 16 states and Washington, D.C., submitted in March were surprisingly critical, given DeVos’ stated commitment to local control, observers told the New York Times. Several states’ plans were returned because they lacked specificity or, in the case of Delaware, because it lacked ambitious goals. A panel of reviewers of Delaware’s plan also took the narrow position that the law permits only math and reading tests to measure academic achievement. While not the final word, that’s potentially troubling for California, which is proposing multiple measures of performance, including student suspension rates, a college and career readiness indicator and the new science test, when it’s ready in a few years.
The three key elements underlying California’s plan for accountability are:
- The Local Control Funding Formula, the 2013 law that says schools and districts should be measured by multiple indicators — school conditions and climate, parent involvement, and college and career readiness — not just test scores;
- A multi-colored “school dashboard” that ranks schools’ performance on the multiple measures and determines which low-performing school districts need limited or intensive help;
- The Local Control and Accountability Plan, the primary planning document that the funding law requires districts to write. Districts, in conversation with parents, will set priorities, including strategies to fix weaknesses and close achievement gaps identified in the dashboard, then commit resources that the funding formula provides.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the state board members complained that the approach under No Child Left Behind** was prescriptive; states were told how to fix schools. The new approach, state board members say, will be collaborative, with the focus on helping districts build their capability to improve — unless they’ve shown, after an unspecified number of years, that they couldn’t. At that point, their county office of education, the state Department of Education or the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a small state agency, would require a more comprehensive level of assistance.
“Rather than ‘doing to’ (the old system), the approach to assistance and intervention should be premised on ‘doing with’ because it is more likely to lead to sustained improvement,” the department wrote in a memo last month.
The state’s 53 county offices of education, which must approve districts’ LCAPs, would have the primary responsibility of working with districts and schools identified for assistance. But recognizing that county offices vary widely in their levels of knowledge and expertise, Department of Education staff are recommending that the state board appoint competitively chosen county offices in charge of regions (see agenda item). The lead county offices would oversee training and match districts and schools with the best experts. To get the job, the lead counties also must be willing “to be held accountable for improved performance within the region” — a level of responsibility not imposed before on county offices.
There appears to be widespread agreement on the state board’s philosophy for school improvement but also criticism of the details — or the lack of them.
The California Practitioners Advisory Group, made up of county, district and charter school administrators, teachers and nonprofit leaders who meet periodically, wants the state plan to include more details about how federal funding for low-income schools would be allocated, how federal money for teacher development would be targeted for low-performing districts and how the plan will address the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and encourage a more equitable distribution of experienced and effective teachers.
In its 9-page critique of the draft plan, the Equity Coalition criticized the broad potential strategies for improvement as “vague and noncommittal,” and called for more involvement of parents in schools needing intensive help. And it said the board should require districts to revise their LCAPs to show how they are allocating resources, including “quality teachers,” to schools assigned for assistance.
Color-coding the lowest performers
The coalition is particularly critical of proposals to choose the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools — about 300 schools receiving Title I funding. Federal law requires that they receive intensive assistance.
The state board proposes to identify the schools using the state’s new dashboard, which ranks performance using five colors indicating lowest to highest in this order: red, orange, yellow, green and blue. The rating currently applies to five indicators: scores on math and English language arts tests, suspension rates, graduation rates and English learners’ progress in becoming English proficient. By the fall of 2018, the dashboard will add rates of chronic absenteeism and a college and career readiness index.
Department of Education staff found 90 schools that ranked red on all indicators or all red except for one orange indicator. “That was the easy part,” wrote Rob Manwaring, a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Children Now, whose extensive analysis of the staff proposal informed the Equity Coalition. After that, the selection risks appearing subjective — or arbitrary. Some of the remaining 200 schools will have more oranges than reds, some will have red and yellow indicators or a green and even a blue indicator among the reds.
Staff are not recommending giving extra weight to test score indicators, which the U.S. Department of Education may demand; instead, each indicator would be treated equally. Sorting through combinations of colors, Manwaring believes, can create confusion and subjectivity. Is a school with two reds and a yellow indicator a better performer than one with one red and two oranges?
“What is the trade-off between being higher performing in one category and lower performing in another? And, how will the state explain this to school leaders and the public?” Manwaring wrote.
And, he noted, there are big variations in performance among schools with the same color indicators; that complicates the process of coming up with a credible list. On the English language arts test, a school whose students scored at grade level but fell slightly from the year before and a school whose students averaged two years behind grade level and fell even more are both orange.
“The color coding approach oversimplifies the underlying data and uses a blunt instrument as the foundation for identifying schools,” Manwaring wrote.
The state board designed the color dashboard to treat each indicator separately — and not create a single, composite rating for a school. Now, he wrote, to satisfy the federal law, it is trying to do that, and it’s not working.
The department staff are suggesting that school districts with the designated lowest-performing schools also receive technical assistance, to bring district personnel into the loop. That idea was suggested by board member Sue Burr at the last meeting, and the Equity Coalition agrees.
David Sapp, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the state board, said that approach — assisting schools by working through districts — would distinguish the state’s approach and exceed what the federal law requires.
The state board is expected to spend most of Wednesday, the first day of a two-day meeting, discussing and hearing public testimony on issues related to the state plan.
** Correction: An earlier version of the article mistakenly attributed the state board’s frustration to the Local Control Funding Formula, which it fully supports.