On August 1, 2016, NEA submitted a letter to the Honorable John B. King, Jr. of the U.S. Department of Education with comments on accountability and state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):
Dear Secretary King:
The National Education Association (NEA), representing three million educators, submits these comments on the Department of Education’s (ED’s) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on accountability and state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), 81 FR 34540 (May 31, 2016).
NEA appreciates ED’s efforts to move forward quickly to implement ESSA through the proposed regulations [“the regulations”] and other actions, and recognizes the challenges the agency faces in implementing a major rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The effort to speed implementation must be accompanied with equal attention to the careful bipartisan compromise that led to passage of ESSA, a compromise designed to move away from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB’s) failed, one-size-fits-all management of state and district school accountability systems, while maintaining guardrails for equity and opportunity. For the reasons described in the section-by-section analysis below, we believe that the regulations miss the mark in terms of fidelity to the spirit and letter of ESSA, and instead revive elements of NCLB’s test, label, and punish system by adding the agency’s own restrictions on goals, indicators, weights, labels, interventions, and state plans. Many of ED’s restrictions are likely to promote the same counter-productive impacts of NCLB: a focus on testing over learning, narrowing of the curriculum for disadvantaged students, disincentives for states to set high standards and goals, over-identification of schools in need of interventions, and the imposition of draconian and ill-advised solutions, several of which ED lists in the proposal, to those over-identified schools.
Identification of schools and students that most need help is, of course, a key goal of any accountability system, but it is important to remember that NCLB in its later years was heading toward labeling all schools failures, which rendered its ability to distinguish between schools meaningless, spread state and LEA supports too thin, put in motion counter-productive interventions, and led to the NCLB waiver program. (See e.g., Memo from Vermont Agency of Education to Parents and Caregivers, August 6, 2014: “This year, every school whose students took the NECAP tests last year is now considered a ‘low performing’ school by the US Department of Education.”) To correct the over-identification problem, ESSA targets comprehensive interventions toward the lowest 5 percent of schools (though states are free to target more), schools that graduate small percentages of students, and schools with certain very low-performing subgroups that do not improve after a state-determined number of years. The regulations undermine ESSA’s improvement over NCLB by adding elements that could unreasonably increase the number of schools identified as needing comprehensive and targeted supports, and suggesting disproportionate interventions in those schools.
The proposed regulations, taken as a whole, undermine the historic opportunity presented by ESSA to advance equity, opportunity, innovation, and school improvement. We urge ED to significantly rewrite these proposed regulations.