Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My ESSA Accountability Plan

As I write this, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) apparently needs help. They have been unable to come up with consensus rules for the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on such issues as "supplement-not-supplant" (about how Title 1 monies are used) and "assessments" (what kinds of tests will be permissible). Apparently coming up with actual rules is more difficult than thinking up Orwellian doublespeak titles like "Every Student Succeeds Act." I wonder if the creators of this acronym know that it also stands for European Salmon Smokers Association? I am not kidding; you could look it up.

One thing is sure though, ESSA requires the states to come up with their own education accountability plan, rather than just having them glom on to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top (RTTT) acts. (Writing about federal law can give you a serious case of acronym overload.) As a public service. I would like to help the states out with a suggested plan. Here goes:

Section 1: Assault on Poverty

The chief culprit in the differential learning outcomes for children in the United States is poverty. No education plan can hope to be successful unless it is tied to a full frontal assault on poverty. We now know that poverty causes actual brain damage that limits the educational possibilities for many. We have long known that poverty greatly impacts the educational opportunities of poor children. An assault on poverty would include increasing the minimum wage so that every person working 40 hours a week can support a family with adequate food and shelter and emotional nourishment, government programs to provide jobs for those who cannot find work (rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, including dilapidated schools would be a good place to start) and high quality, safe and professionally managed daycare for parents who require these services to be able to work.

For those unable to work we must have generous programs offering food stamps, housing vouchers and cash to insure a reasonable standard of living.

Section 2: Health Care Services

Free neighborhood health clinics to insure effective prenatal care, regular pediatric checkups and screenings for vision, hearing, nutrition, lead poisoning and any other aspects of health that have been shown to harm a child's ability to learn. In school health services would include one nurse for every 150 children and one school counselor for every 200 students.

Section 3: Professionally Staffed Preschool

Preschool has been shown to be an effective way to combat some of the problems related to poverty. Often, however, the preschools available to children of poverty are substandard and not professionally staffed. Teachers in preschools should be fully certified in early childhood education and supervisors should have both early childhood professional credentials and also experience in early childhood education. The focus of preschool should be on learning through well-structured and purposeful play.

Section 4: Small Class Sizes

Smaller classes help all students succeed (Schanzenbach, 2014), but they are particularly effective for students growing up in poverty (Achilles, et. al, 2012). It is important to note; however, that class size reduction must be accompanied by changes in teacher instructional style to reap the benefits of smaller classes. With this in mind, this plan will include professional development for teachers to help them adjust instruction for the new smaller classes.

Section 5: Student Assessment Practices

Students will be assessed in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, health, art, music and physical education at every grade level. In coordination with and under the guidance of the teacher, students will gather a variety of artifacts to demonstrate their learning throughout the year. Artifacts will include writing samples, logs of books and articles read and written and oral responses to the reading, science lab reports, written history reports, math problem solving evidence, reports on a variety of topics, classroom tests and quizzes, and teacher designed common assessments. Scoring of the artifacts will be based on rubrics that define performance and test scores.

The state will trust the professional educators to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting a dozen portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of student learning.

Section 6: Teacher Evaluation Practices

Like the students, teachers will be evaluated through a portfolio that shows evidence of successful student learning throughout the year. The portfolio will contain samples of student work, sample student assessments, teacher lesson plans, evidence of student learning, evidence of teacher collaborative work, documentation of improved practice based on observation feedback, student surveys, teacher self-reflection and documentation of professional development activities.

The state will trust the professional supervisors in the building to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting 6 teacher portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of teacher performance.

Section 7: School Accountability Practices

Like the students and teachers, schools will be held accountable for student performance based on a portfolio that demonstrates that the school is meeting the needs of all children. The school portfolio will include student standardized test scores for the one grade where these tests are given in the school (say 4th, 8th, or 11th), reports on programs offered at the school, including minority enrollment in the programs, specific evidence of a rich and varied curriculum open to all students, documentation of meeting the needs of all students through support programs, special education and ESL, and documentation of efforts to include parents in the life of the school.

The state will trust the professional principals and vice-principals compiling these reports to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance through a regularly scheduled visit to the school every other year.

Section 8: State Accountability

The state will be held accountable to provide the federal Department of Education with evidence that it is waging an assault on poverty through effective economic, health care and worker programs like those outlined above and that it is focused on developing the kind of professionally autonomous teachers needed to make this ambitious program work. If the state is unable to provide such evidence, they risk having the HELP rules committee taking up residence in the state capitol to bring its own special brand of legislative inertia down on the state.

So, that is my plan. If states are truly interested in acccountability, this is the approach they should take. I am sure you have ideas of your own. What would you add? I am going to sit back and wait for those state government leaders to come calling. I won't hold my breath.

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