Exclusive: The 29 Experts Joining Forces to Give State ESSA Plans a Harder Accountability Look

April 6 Update

The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at the state level will undergo a rigorous review process led by external groups. Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success have assembled a team of advocates, education experts, and former state officials to independently assess the initial round of ESSA plans submitted in early April, which is separate from the federal review process. The purpose of this review is to ensure that states are not just fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law, but are going above and beyond to establish an effective K-12 education system aligned with their visions.

The evaluation criteria will prioritize strong accountability systems that align with college and career readiness standards for all students. Reviewers will look for ambitious yet realistic goals, as well as "guardrails" that prioritize students in need of additional assistance. They will also evaluate whether accountability systems can be manipulated in unproductive ways and whether all students are being pushed towards graduation without acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge.

Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education and one of the reviewers, highlights the importance of having a review process that examines proposals from the perspective of what is best for students, rather than solely focusing on compliance with the law.

Although the review will not cover all aspects required in state plans, it aims to provide an open and honest assessment. Less than 20 states have indicated that they will submit plans by the first deadline set by the Education Department on April 3. However, states have some flexibility with this deadline as the department released a new template on March 13, and governors are granted 30 days to review the final plan before submission. The second deadline for ESSA plans is September 18.

Last month, Congress blocked stricter accountability regulations proposed under the Obama administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pledged to require plans that include only what is "absolutely necessary" to meet the requirements of the ESSA, which grants more decision-making authority to states regarding education policy.

Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, expresses excitement for the opportunity to highlight states that have developed meaningful accountability systems and offer guidance on how to enhance these plans further. He emphasizes that this effort will create a platform for all states to learn from one another and ensure the best education outcomes for students.

Each state plan will be evaluated in nine different areas, ranging from a rating of one ("This practice should be avoided by other states") to five ("This could be a potential model for other states"). The ratings will consider factors such as whether the state’s accountability system hides the performance of specific student subgroups, whether the plan effectively identifies schools in need of support, and whether there is sufficient emphasis on both proficiency and growth in test scores.

Over 25 reviewers, including advocates and former state officials from various political backgrounds, have been confirmed, with the possibility of more being added to the team. Notable figures include Tony Bennett, the former schools chief in Florida and Indiana, Gerard Robinson, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and former Obama Education Department officials Joanne Weiss and Scott Sargrad.

Liz King, a policy analyst at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Gisela Ariza, a policy analyst as well, are part of a group of experts and professionals in the education field. Other members include Aimee Rogstad Guidera, the president and CEO of Data Quality Campaign, and Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the same organization.

The group also includes Charmaine Mercer, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, Doug Mesecar, an adjunct scholar at Lexington Institute, Kerry Moll, the vice president of policy and advocacy at Stand for Children, Rashidah Morgan, a senior consultant at Education First, Gavin Payne, a consultant at GPC Advisors, LLC, Ryan Reyna, a senior associate at Education Strategy Group, Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, Gini Pupo-Walker, the senior director of education policy and strategic growth at Conexión Américas, Anne Wicks, the director of education reform at George W. Bush Institute, John Bailey, a strategic advisor and senior official in the George W. Bush administration, and Christy Wolfe, a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Former Delaware governor Jack Markell expressed his belief that states have taken the lead in holding themselves accountable for improving education for all students. He sees the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as an opportunity to continue this leadership and elevate goals to the next level. Markell emphasized the importance of an independent peer review in the goal-setting process. He stated that this review provides an external evaluation from experienced experts to ensure that states are fulfilling their promises to the students they are educating.

The group of experts is working towards releasing a consensus report, which they plan to publish in June. This report will combine their collective knowledge and insights to provide valuable recommendations and analysis on education policies and practices.

It is also worth noting that Andy Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, is involved in this initiative. He serves on board of directors and contributes as one of the senior editors on the site.

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  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.