The Intersection

Ready to Use ESSA to Advance Equity? Here’s How to Make it Count

December 2, 2016


aspen-instituteEvery state constitution affirms the state’s responsibility for education, and while each articulates a slightly different vision, many assert that every child deserves an education that prepares him or her for economic success and participation in civic life. This vision of educational opportunity as the path to economic mobility puts equity at the heart of public education’s core purpose.  And yet for far too many children, the American Dream remains elusive.

State education leaders – chief state school officers, state board members, legislators, and governors – must use their positions of authority to prioritize the equity mission of public education. This is much easier said than done and it can be difficult to know where to start.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a tremendous opportunity for state leaders to come together to set (or re-set) a vision, priorities and goals for education. State leaders should engage community organizations, districts, parents, and teachers to analyze data to identify the greatest gaps and determine how to focus efforts and allocate limited resources to address those gaps. This data dive should consider current performance, opportunity gaps, disparities in resources (including funding and disparate access to highly effective teachers and leaders, technology, advanced coursework and more), and population trends. Wherever the data leads, this effort will require trade-offs, clear communication, and a call on actors at all levels to prioritize equity. This will be difficult, if it feels easy, then sorry, it’s probably being done wrong.

State leaders must do this first, then use ESSA as a support. The opposite approach is that state education officials look at the requirements of the law, develop a plan that checks off all the boxes, and miss out on a tremendous opportunity. While it’s necessary to follow the law, states need not let the law lead “the work.” Instead, “the work” should be determined by an assessment of where students are academically, where they need to be, and how to get them there.

Here is an example of how this might play out. Say a stakeholder engagement process reveals a need to prioritize English learners (ELs). First, what is known about them?

  • How many EL students reside in the state? And where?
  • How old are they? How many are newcomers?
  • How are they performing in school?

Then examine existing processes and goals:

  • Are there existing goals for how ELs will progress to English proficiency?
  • How are schools, districts and the state meeting these goals?
  • Is there a standardized process for classifying students as ELs and for re-classifying as proficient in English?
  • What is the definition of proficiency?

Under ESSA, states must set goals and a timeline for progress in achieving English language proficiency. Previously, districts used a variety of criteria for determining “entry-and exit” in EL status. 

  • What is an appropriate timeline given the population and current proficiency levels?
  • What is appropriate state action (both supports and intervention) for schools and districts when ELs have not attained English proficiency within five years of identification as an EL?

With all of this information in hand, states must target resources.

If most ELs are concentrated in a few districts, identify those places and target funding and technical assistance there.

If EL enrollment is dispersed, highlight and share promising practices and tools for district use. Use federal set-aside funds to make strategic sub-grants to regional education service agencies to serve ELs in these areas.

If ELs are concentrated in the early grades, leverage the Preschool Development Grant to expand access to preschool programs and the Literacy block grant to develop or enhance early literacy for ELs.

If most ELs are newcomers, the existing teacher corps may not yet be equipped to meet their unique learning needs. Target federal dollars to ensure that ELs have access to effective teachers and leaders. States must also examine options for how to integrate newcomers into their statewide assessment and accountability systems. For more on the specific provisions within ESSA, see: Advancing Equity Through ESSA: Strategies for State Leaders.

Once the initial goals and plans have been developed, state education leaders must hold themselves and each other accountable for progress. Engage non-governmental partners and advocacy groups as “watch-dogs” to ensure English proficiency for ELs remains a priority even through transitions in leadership.

The focus on ELs may not work for every state. If states are to advance equity, however, they must:

  • First, engage stakeholders
  • Second, examine data to determine priorities
  • Third, use ESSA strategically to support goals for their context and not let ESSA alone drive state education activity

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