Where ESSA Opens Opportunities for Companies

Associate Editor

Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and districts new flexibility in how they use federal funds for K-12 education, and a group of companies meeting here in the desert is trying to understand exactly what that means for them.

“This was a tectonic shift in education governance,” said Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education, on a panel at EdNET 2017 Monday. States and districts now have more leeway in how they plan to educate—and prioritize different aspects of education—for students.

On the same day that more than 200 business executives listened to an ESSA panel here, nearly three dozen states submitted their final ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on the final deadline day to do so.

Once plans are approved, districts and states will need to track new measures of progress, but education agencies are already struggling to get clear data out to the public, said Amundson, referring to a Data Quality Campaign report of state report cards issued last year.

ESSA has “a clear theory of change…that if people in policy-making decisions have access to the right data, they will make the right decisions,” Amundson said. But the reality on the local level is different. “Data is still a four-letter word for an awful lot of people,” she said.

To support schools and state leaders, businesses can provide answers to the following questions about data, she said.

  • How can we collect it? Can you collect data in ways that do not involve teachers spending all night sitting in front of spreadsheets? Technology can be a useful method for gathering real-life examples of student work.
  • How can you use it? Educators can analyze and use that data to make the personalized learning decisions needed for every single student. “I read a lot of teacher blogs,” said Amundson, and what she sees is this: “Ew, I have to do data today,” she said.
  • How can you help report it out? What are the best ways for schools to report what’s going on so that information makes sense to the business community as well as parents?

In Arizona, where the state’s ESSA plan was approved by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this month, district leaders can start making decisions based on that roadmap.

Selecting Resources That Work

Besides data, school leaders here and nationally need to have easy access to educational resources, and multiple resources, said Gail Pletnick, the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Arizona and president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, “One size does not fit all,” she said.

At her 26,400-student district, Pletnick said certain teachers who love finding new instructional materials and sharing them with others have been designated “innovation ambassadors.”

“They often bring us the best ideas about the kind of resources we could use,” said Pletnick, who was recognized in 2014 by Education Week as a Leader to Learn From for her leadership in 21st-century learning. With districts comparing notes about what works, “that could help us move the needle,” she said, “building a collaborative network as professionals making decisions.”

When a company comes to her and offers to partner with program evaluation, “that’s a huge selling point,” she said. “We can’t afford to make mistakes.”

Flexibility is key in really working as a partner like Dysart and other districts, she said. “That will be what works for us in the end.”

More Emphasis on Leadership

“What’s unique about the transition to ESSA, which many districts aren’t aware of yet, is that it’s less about the compliance aspect and more about innovative leadership,” said David DeSchryver, who is a senior vice president and co-director of research at Whiteboard Advisors, a strategy and consulting firm.

ESSA pushes change in four areas: fiscal flexibility; a requirement to spend federal funds on programs based on different tiers for efficacy and evidence; a broader set of objectives with programs in areas like social-emotional learning, and data management.

“All require data and implementation fidelity,” said DeSchryver. “But sometimes the most obvious things are missed.”

Acknowledging all the competing priorities for school leaders, he said they are still “missing the importance of student information, yet they are awash in it.”

Under ESSA, it will be much more important for districts to be clear about “what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” which is an area that the charter sector has been good at, he said.

ESSA Plans Will Evolve

Even with all states’ ESSA plans submitted, “it’s the beginning—not the end,” said Amundson.Even under No Child Left Behind, which was much more prescriptive, within the first 18 months after plans were filed all but seven states came back with changes they wanted to make,” she said.

Within the first two years, all states’ plans had changed.

“The plans are going to continue to be evolving documents as states get a better sense of how things work,” said Amundson, so education companies will need to stay apprised of the plans in states where they work, and where they want to.


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