How the Every Student Succeeds Act could change New York schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New York is about to have a lot more freedom to craft education policy.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed last week, won’t change anything right away in New York state. But ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, hands authority from the federal education department to the states, which could eventually lead to important shifts in how the state tests students and what happens to struggling schools.

Most states, including New York, already had waivers that allowed them to operate outside No Child Left Behind’s rules. (Those will expire as next school year begins.) In New York, policymakers had also pushed even further than the old law required in recent years, sparking backlash around state testing, teacher evaluations, and the Common Core standards — and prompting officials to begin backing away from many of those shifts even before ESSA’s passage.

As those debates continue, here are a few ways ESSA might change things in New York.

Standardized testing

Students in grades 3 through 8 will still have to take state English and math tests, and high school students will still take Regents tests.

New York will still have to report those results and the results for certain student groups, such as those with disabilities or who are still learning English.

But the new law gives states new freedom to change what their tests look like. States are allowed to use computer-based tests that adapt to students’ levels, for example. The law also encourages states to measure student achievement in multiple ways — including with portfolios of student work or extended performance tasks.

State officials have been signaling their support for that kind of flexibility recently too.

A report by a Gov. Cuomo-appointed task force released last week suggested that teachers be allowed to assess students in new ways. In November, state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia suggested creating an advisory council to develop recommendations for those kinds of assessments based on performance tasks.

Struggling schools

The new law will still require New York to track school performance and progress. The state will also still have to intervene at the bottom 5 percent of schools and at high schools with high dropout rates.

But it will now be up to New York to decide exactly how to identify that bottom group and how to try to improve them.

New York state has been identifying the bottom 5 percent of schools primarily by state test scores. When it intervened, officials chose one of a few preset federal turnaround policies, which required schools to do things like make staff changes or redesign the school day.

Under the new law, states are allowed to make some of their own choices about how they calculate which schools are struggling. The factors could include test scores, graduation rates, and — in a shift — measures of school climate and safety, student engagement, or completion of advanced coursework, with academic factors getting the most weight.

The new law will also allow New York to devise its own school improvement strategies, which could differ from the traditional turnaround models. (The state will have to keep supporting its “priority” and “focus” schools identified by the current formula until their new plans kick in.)

None of that guarantees New York will adjust its current strategy, though.

“This is all going to be dependent on how New York state changes things,” said Mike Hansen, the deputy director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “If they just use the current business model to intervene in low-performing schools, than they may be doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing under the waiver.”

Teacher evaluations

New York’s promise to overhaul its teacher evaluation systems to incorporate student test scores in 2010 helped win millions in Race to the Top federal funding and a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

The new education law does not address teacher evaluations at all, leaving state officials free to make big changes without concern about losing federal funding.

Those changes are on the way. On Monday, the Board of Regents voted to stop using state test results in teacher evaluations until the 2019-20 school year.

“If you believe that we were required to do all of that by federal law, that rug has now been pulled out from under them,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, referring to New York’s state tests and teacher evaluations. “The basis for those requirements has now been eliminated.”


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.