Students Can't Wait: ESSA and the Urgency of Now

"We have come ... to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of Democracy."

--Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963

As the ink dries on the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and powerful education interest groups rally to exploit the new flexibility in the law to gut school accountability systems, Dr. King's powerful words remind us of just who loses if state education leaders take their collective foot off the accelerator of school improvement: the poor students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities who still get less of everything that matters in education and too often end up trapped without the skills they need for post high school success.

While our schools have made significant progress over the last 15 years in improving achievement and graduation rates for historically underserved groups of students, there is still a long way to go to close longstanding gaps in opportunity and achievement. Now is not the time to slow down.

There is fierce urgency -- and opportunity -- in this moment. In resetting goals and designing new accountability systems for education, the new law offers equity-minded educators, civil rights and education advocates, business leaders, families and community leaders in every state a chance to work together to create a system that is truer to our ideals as a country. A system that focuses on quality for all students, one that is organized not around "gotchas," but around improvement.

But let's be clear: If accountability systems are our best vehicle for conveying urgency, advocates and community leaders must use the levers in the law to make sure that systems that have been characterized as "test and punish" don't become "test and ignore."

So what are critical features of a state accountability system that reflects real urgency, but is also fundamentally organized around improvement?

  1. Focuses on improvement for all students in all schools. Educators at the best schools will tell you that the work of improvement never stops. The school accountability system should hold all schools --including relatively high performers -- responsible for the continuous progress of all groups of students.
  2. Makes the main thing the main thing. In an era when postsecondary education and training are essential, indicators of postsecondary readiness must be central and can't be overshadowed by other measures in school ratings.
  3. Sets clear improvement expectations both for students overall and for every group of young people. These expectations must include ambitious but achievable goals that expect faster progress for groups that are further behind.
  4. Clearly communicates to families, educators, students, and the public whether schools are meeting expectations for all groups of students. Schools should be rated not just on school-wide averages, but on the progress of all student groups. Ratings must clearly differentiate schools that are consistently meeting expectations for all groups from those that aren't, even if only a single group is lagging. Schools doing a stellar job educating all groups of students should be celebrated and encouraged to share their expertise.
  5. Expects immediate action whenever any group of students is struggling. To ensure that students don't languish, if a school misses expectations for any group of students, its rating should drop and the school should be required to take action. Today's third-grade English learners can't be expected to wait for years before getting the well-trained teachers they need to help them master the essentials of English.2016-03-21-1458598082-5835644-NCES_Fig1_PercentagePublicSchoolStudentsEnglishLangaugeLearners.jpg
  6. Generates additional data to inform the improvement process. Educators, parents and other local stakeholders shouldn't have to guess what is leading to inadequate progress. In addition to looking at measures that go into the school rating, the improvement process should begin with a deep look at a variety of data -- including indicators of school culture and instructional quality. This diagnosis should identify causes of underperformance by looking at each school's strengths and challenges, including any inequities in school-based opportunities to learn.
  7. Incentivizes and supports evidence-based solutions. Decisions about improvement strategies should be based on research on proven practices and targeted interventions. Schools and districts should be able to explain how their approach will address the causes of underperformance and improve student outcomes.
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  9. Makes families full partners in the improvement process. Families have unique insights into the needs, strengths, and aspirations of their children and should be at the table when improvement plans are developed, and also play a role in monitoring progress.
  10. Holds districts accountable for doing the parts that only they can do. Districts have fundamentally important responsibilities in school improvement. They provide equitable resources, including quality teachers; assure strong and consistent leadership; and support and monitor the progress of standards implementation. Districts must be the first responders whenever school improvement processes are not producing needed gains for any group of students.
  11. Keeps close tabs on progress and doesn't kick the can down the road. School improvement is hard work and results take time. But it can't take forever. State plans must specify timelines for districts to act when school improvement actions have failed and for states to intervene if districts aren't producing needed improvements.

Too often, state- and district-led school improvement efforts have been episodic, with years of neglect in between. States cannot simply keep turning over the hourglass and watching the sand funnel through while groups of young people go underserved in their schools or districts.

When Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he sounded a call to the thousands gathered there and to America: There is no time to wait.

Today, we stand with the same urgency. And we sound the same call: There is no time to wait to give all students the education they need and deserve.