Updated: New York’s top education policymakers approved a major plan Monday that could reshape the way the state evaluates schools, intervenes in those that are struggling, and several other key education policies.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires each state to craft a plan and submit it to the U.S. Education Department, which 16 states and the District of Columbia did earlier this year. New York’s Board of Regents voted on Monday to accept its plan, meaning it will now head to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agency for final approval.
The state’s ESSA plan is hundreds of pages long and packed with technical jargon and formulas. But taken as a whole, it amounts to a roadmap for how the current Regents intend to steer state education policy in a new direction.
Here’s what you need to know about it:
1.) The plan stems from a sweeping new federal law
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law, replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA, which is the country’s primary federal education law, sought to remedy problems that had plagued NCLB and made it unpopular with lawmakers from both parties and many educators.
NCLB was widely criticized for setting unrealistic expectations: By 2014, every state was expected to get 100 percent of students to pass its annual exams. If schools failed to make enough progress towards that goal, they could face a series of consequences including state takeover, conversion into a charter school or closure.
ESSA places more power in the hands of the states to identify and intervene in struggling schools. Yet, the law also kept important elements of NCLB intact. For instance, states are still required to administer English and math tests in grades three to eight. However, New York is planning to apply for a waiver that will allow it to experiment with new types of assessments, according to draft plans.
2.) The plan centers on evaluating and improving schools
Under the previous law, schools were rated primarily based on students’ test scores and graduation rates, and the lowest-performing schools were subject to harsh penalties. ESSA gave New York a chance to rethink that approach.
Now, when officials rate schools they will look beyond academic outcomes (read: test scores) to also consider other measures of students’ success or struggles, such as how often they’re suspended or miss class or how prepared they are for life after high school. The plan also alters the formula for calculating the bottom 5 percent of schools.
The plan also changes what happens after a school is labeled as low performing. Rather than replacing their staffers or closing them, the state will first offer struggling schools more support — though it is unclear what exactly that support, which the plan calls “evidence-based interventions,” will look like. However, schools that receive low ratings for three years can still face state takeover under this plan.
Finally, the plan lays the groundwork for a new way to share its school ratings with the public. An online tool that the state calls a “dashboard” will display information not just about how well a given school is performing, but also about the context it’s operating in: For example, how much funding does it get and how diverse is its student body? While that context won’t change how schools are rated, it’s meant to provide a fuller picture to the public and prod districts to fund schools equitably and reduce segregation.
3.) The plan is a roadmap of New York’s new education approach
The plan is more than just a technical document — it’s also a manifesto spelling out a philosophy of school change that contrasts sharply with New York’s past approach. When Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa revealed the state’s original draft ESSA plan, she called it a “vision plan.”
Rosa was elected to lead the Board of Regents just as they — along with state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo — were beginning to amend a slate of controversial policies, including teacher evaluations, learning standards, and graduation requirements. For instance, they put a freeze on the use of certain test scores to rate teachers and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate high school.
Beyond unwinding the previous chancellor’s policies, ESSA has given Rosa and the current Regents a chance to articulate their alternative vision. At the core of their philosophy is making sure that all schools have the resources they need to succeed.
Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, said the plan begins to translate that vision into policy and describe how it will set that policy in motion.
“That is not just symbolic,” he said.
4.) There’s disagreement about how much the plan changes and what it will mean for schools
Is this shift mainly rhetorical or will it make a major difference in classrooms across the state? Advocates have different answers to that question.
Some, like Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped lead a movement to boycott state tests, think that the state’s ESSA plan does not mark a big enough departure from the previous law.
“I see the ESSA plan as an extension of No Child Left Behind,” Rudley said. “I do think they missed a huge opportunity.”
Others think the plan reflects an important policy shift that will trickle down to the classroom. For instance, lessening the weight of test scores in judging schools and teachers reduces the pressure on educators to only cover material that will appear on the exams, said Carl Korn, spokesman for the state teachers union.
“I don’t know that you can discount the more holistic, 30,000 foot view of [evaluating] what’s happening in a school, as opposed to [using] simply ELA and math scores,” Korn said.
The education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners gave New York’s plan high marks for the amount of support it plans to give schools that are struggling, which would include a needs assessment and a team of on-site reviewers.
5.) Now the plan must make it past Betsy DeVos
The plan is now headed to the United States Department of Education by the end of September. The state will receive feedback on the plan and officials expect it will be officially approved in early 2018.