House Hearing on ESSA Implementation

On July 18, the House Education & the Workforce Committee held a hearing on state and local implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The witnesses testifying were as follows:

Ms. Jacqueline Nowicki
Director, K-12 Education
U.S. Government Accountability Office

Dr. Gail Pletnick
Dysart Unified School District, AZ

Mr. Phillip Lovell
Vice President of Policy Development and Government Relations
Alliance for Excellent Education

Dr. Carey Wright
State Superintendent
Mississippi Department of Education

Executive Summary: Today’s House hearing on ESSA implementation, which reportedly arose over Chair Foxx’s concern with the Department’s tough feedback to some states on their ESSA plans, focused more on the absence of Secretary DeVos or any other representative of the Department and on funding than on the nuts and bolts of implementation. After a litany of complaints from Democrats about the lack of a witness from the Department, Chair Foxx indicated that she would invite the Secretary to meet with the Committee at a later date. Democrats also hammered home the pain of proposed funding cuts, particularly to Title IIA, with three of the four witnesses testifying that these cuts would lead to increased class sizes, teacher terminations, program terminations and possible rewriting of state plans. While Ranking Member Scott defended the right of the Department to ask states questions about state ESSA plans and approve or disapprove of them, many Committee members and some of the witnesses pointed to the confusion engendered by conflicting Departmental responses to state plans and policies promulgated, including the ESSA template. Republican Committee members used their time to reemphasize the importance of the local and state control and flexibility that ESSA had granted and to point to the value of the extensive public input – to which the state and district witnesses attested – in which states engaged to formulate their ESSA plans. While Chair Foxx concluded the hearing by saying that we are “moving in the right direction on ESSA,” it seemed clear that the hearing was intended as a shot across the bow to the Department to not overstep ESSA’s bounds in offering feedback to states and approving their ESSA plans.

Opening Statements:

Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC): Foxx opened the hearing by recalling that the Every Student Succeeds Act “sought to achieve two specific goals for K-12 education: autonomy and accountability” and that the law strived to end “a ‘Washington knows best’ approach to education.” She went on to state “this Committee will be watching to make sure Washington keeps its distance” from ESSA implementation, noting that ESSA included “unprecedented restrictions on the Department of Education’s authority” to usurp the state and local flexibility granted by the law.

Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA): In more extensive remarks, Scott set the tone for the minority by immediately indicating that it was “regrettable that the Committee was not hearing from the US Department of Education today.” He renewed his request to the Chair that the Department appear before the Committee, with Chair Foxx later indicating that she would request the Secretary’s appearance before the Committee in the future. Scott also stated that while ESSA grants a great deal of flexibility to states and locals, it does require the Secretary to “review state plans, ask questions and if necessary disapprove the plans.” Scott lamented some of the inconsistent feedback states had received from the Department but said that the reviews were part of its job: “There is a difference between overreach and simply administering the program.” Scott also used his remarks to decry the Trump Administration’s (and now the House’s) proposed funding cuts, specifically noting the elimination of Title IIA and Afterschool. He also mentioned the peril potential Medicaid cuts would put schools in.

Witness Testimony:

Jacqueline Nowicki: Her testimony focused on findings from a report on implementation that GAO is releasing today, and which is based on the results of its interviews with 9 stakeholder groups in Ohio and California. The report looks at four key areas of ESSA implementation in those states: 1) their determination of long-term goals; 2) their development of performance indicators; 3) how they differentiate between schools; and 4) how they identify and assist low performers. One of GAO’s central conclusions from its research is that all stakeholder groups view “ESSA’s accountability provisions as somewhat flexible, with most indicating that ESSA strikes a good balance between flexibility and requirements.” GAO also found that states were using ESSA as an opportunity to make changes to their accountability systems – some extensive and some limited. A number of states had already make significant changes to those systems during the NCLB waiver process and are satisfied with what they have already done.

In her written testimony, Nowicki used Ohio and California to “illustrate how two different states are using the flexibilities in ESSA to tailor their accountability systems to meet state needs for each of the four key components of state accountability systems.” Ohio, for instance, keys on chronic absenteeism as an indicator of school quality or student success because it is strongly coordinated with student performance and would not require new data collection. In response to complaints from some stakeholders that schools cannot control whether students come to school and thus this is not a fair indicator, Ohio is piloting a school climate survey as a potential additional indicator. California, on the other hand, is using chronic absenteeism only as an academic indicator but not as an indicator of school quality or student success. To measure the latter, California “plans to measure the number of suspensions in a school or district, with high suspension rates indicating poor quality and failure, and low rates indicating success.”

Nowicki reported that the Department is considering whether there is a need for additional guidance for states and that it is “developing monitoring protocols for in-depth reviews of states’ ESSA-related activities and will pilot them in early 2018. These protocols are intended to guide in-depth reviews of state activities related to ESSA implementation.”

Gail Pletnick: Speaking as both a school superintendent and the President of ASSA, Pletnick extolled the flexibility that ESSA brought to schools and states, saying that Arizona superintendents felt that it “has created an opportunity for stakeholders to become more involved in goal setting and in establishing accountability processes.” Pletnick also discussed how ESSA flexibility in the use of multiple measures for school evaluation allowed the state to broaden its success indicators for high schools to encompass CTE assessments, advanced academic coursework and earned career credentials; for elementary schools, though, the indicators are more limited.

Pletnick also identified as a continuing concern the “uncertainty created by shifting interpretations of the ESSA law.” Another concern for her was funding: “It is critical Congress match the bipartisan support demonstrated for the policy of the law with appropriate funding support. I want to take a direct quote from the AZ Consolidated Plan: “’As Arizona continues, through both federal and state funds, to fine tune funding streams for our LEAs, the committee felt it important to recognize the need for consistent funding. Through consistent and reliable funding, innovative strategies to support all learners can be developed and sustained. Additionally, consistent and reliable funding assists LEAs in building a strong cadre of teachers and leaders to fully support learners within our Arizona schools and to accelerate the closing of proficiency gaps.’”

Phillip Lovell:  Lovellmade 4 main points in his written and oral testimony:

  1. ESSA is a civil rights law with equity-focused requirements that must be implemented and enforced. Lovell stated that ESSA contains a number of provisions that must be implemented and enforced in order “to close gaps among the students who have historically faced the greatest challenges—students from low-income families, African American and Hispanic/Latino students, students with disabilities, Native students, and English learners.”
  2. ESSA preserves the limited but critical role of the federal government. While I may not agree with all of its findings, I appreciate that ED is carrying out its oversight role as required under the law in its letters to states responding to proposed ESSA plans. Lovell noted that while the Alliance and other organizations are critically reviewing state ESSA plans and making these reviews publicly available, “only ED has the statutory authority and responsibility to review the plans and ensure they comply with the law that this committee wrote.” He pointed out, though, that the Department has provided comments on state plans that he views as “insufficient,” and “have caused confusion.” One example of this he cites is ESSA allowing states to use “student access to and completion of advanced coursework” as an indicator of school quality and student success [ESSA, Section 1111(c)(4)(B)(v)(V)]. However, ED criticized a state’s proposal to incorporate performance in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams in this indicator.” Lovell also cites examples of the Department’s confusing responses to state plans on complying with the ESSA requirements to identify schools for targeted support and improvement if they have consistently underperforming student subgroups.
  3. The quality of ESSA state plans is uneven. There are certainly some strengths, but there are missed opportunities and many weaknesses, including proposals that violate the law. Specifically, Lovell complained about state plans that:

1)     Aggregate subgroups together rather than considering the performance of each subgroup, thereby masking performance of historically underserved students;

2)     Proposing systems that rate schools but fail to include student subgroup performance as the law requires;

3)     Fail to meaningfully address the goal of 95% test participation rates, including how the 95% rate is calculated and consequences for failing to meet the 95% participation rate; and

4)     Fail to use the four-year graduation rate as an indicator in their accountability systems.

Lovell did note that while a number of state plans lack innovation and do not aim for “deeper learning,” he singled out a few for praise in his written testimony:

  • Louisiana is raising expectations for its students and ensuring that an “A” rating reflects the level of performance that one would expect of an “A” school. Louisiana also incorporates a “strength of diploma” indicator in its accountability system to incentivize preparation for postsecondary education and the workforce.
  • Delaware and Illinois are examples of states that incorporate the percentage of ninth-grade students who are on track for on-time graduation. This is an indicator demonstrated by research to accurately predict high school graduation rates and will incentivize early intervention to increase graduation rates.
  • Several states (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Vermont) propose to include measures of college and career readiness in their accountability system (e.g., access to and performance in rigorous course work).
  1. Proposed funding cuts jeopardize ESSA implementation. Lovell said: “Responsibility without resources will not yield results.” He cited President Trump’s proposals to freeze funding for Title I and underfund Title IVA prominently in his examples.

Carey Wright:  Wright, who is both Mississippi’s State Superintendent and CCSSO’s President Elect, devoted a good deal of her testimony to detailing her state’s stakeholder input process, which involved multiple groups, 15 public meetings and 6 meetings with district superintendents. She also indicated that, even with the submission of the state’s plan, she expected that the ESSA advisory committee would remain active and involved. Among the key points from the plan she cited were: a teacher leadership initiative; pre-K expansion; school improvement efforts that will feature P-16 councils; CTE expansion, which will include CTE diploma endorsement opportunities; and the long term goal “to eliminate the proficiency gap between African-American students and all students entirely, so that the proficiency rate for all student subgroups increases to 70 percent by 2025.”

She also mentioned the importance of federal funding, saying that: “Mississippi’s ESSA plan is built around the targeted and efficient use of federal funds to make the maximum impact on student achievement, especially for the most disadvantaged students. The proposed cuts to the federal education budget would greatly harm our ability to implement key programs under ESSA. In particular, the proposed cuts to Title II programs would devastate our efforts to improve teacher preparation and quality, particularly in high-need school districts that struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers.”

Q & A:

The main subjects discussed were as follows:

  1. The Empty Chair: A number of Democrats, and even one Republican (Rep. Walberg (R-MI), complained that neither the Secretary nor anyone from the Department was participating in the hearing. While GAO was present, it was plain that the GAO’s representative was largely confined to answering rather basic questions based on its small study and was not able to answer substantively about major ESSA issues or Department positions. Rep. Courtney (D-CT) said: “We need people from the Department to answer questions about where this is going.” Ultimately, Rep. Polis (D-CO) wrung from the Chair that she planned to invite Secretary DeVos to a future hearing.
  2. Funding Cuts Impact: Three of the four witnesses and many Democratic panel members brought up the proposed funding cuts. Reps. Polis and Takano (D-CA) asked about the impact on states and districts if Title IIA funds are lost. Pletnick responded that class sizes in her district would increase, positions would be eliminated and programs like peer mentoring would end. In response to a question from Polis, she said that states would likely to have to revisit and rewrite their ESSA plans if this funding stream ended. In response to a question from Rep. Courtney and Rep. Wilson (R-SC), Lovell discussed how underfunding for Title I might prevent states from using their optional 3% set aside for direct student services, which includes supporting industry CTE credentials. Rep. Barletta (R-PA), though not specifically mentioning funding, took his time to champion Pennsylvania’s afterschool programs (funding for which is on the chopping block) and their importance to improving school attendance. Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) used nearly his entire 5 minutes to build a case that the federal, state and local governments were underfunding education and that school choice options were a further drain on public schools.
  3. Inconsistent feedback from the Department on State Plans: Quite a few members used their time to discuss how inconsistent feedback from the Department on ESSA plans was, as Rep. Courtney put it, causing a “lot of confusion and sending mixed messages.” These inconsistent messages, he asserted, were because of the recent Congressional Review Act enactment that eliminated a number of ESSA implementing regulations that the Obama Administration approved, leaving “a black hole in the law.” And it was not just the Democrats who took up this point. Rep. Guthrie (R-KY) asked the panel if they were aware of inconsistent feedback from the Department to the states. Lovell cited confusing responses about allowing advanced coursework as an indicator as well as the fact that the Department’s revised template failed to include space for states to describe stakeholder engagement even though the law clearly required stakeholder engagement.
  4. Department Capacity: One issue raised by Rep. Davis (D-CA) involved whether the Department was really able to work with states given its shortage of personnel. She indicated that the Department had yet to put forward 12 of 15 political nominees, including permanent heads for its Office of Civil Rights and Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and that 70% of senior staff position were vacant.  Lovell said that he found this to be a problem. Rep. Walberg blamed Democrats for stonewalling Secretary DeVos’ nominees.
  5. Local flexibility and public engagement: Many Republicans used there time to describe how important ESSA was in transferring authority over education back to the states and locals, where they said it belongs. Chair Foxx’s opening and closing remarks described this as the most important part of ESSA. Reps. Garrett (R-VA) and Wilson (R-SC) were particularly focused on this issue. Other members, including Reps. Allen (R-GA), Mitchell (R-MI), and Guthrie (R-KY) used their time to ask specifically about the state and district stakeholder engagement processes.