Education Department releases new guidelines on ESEA flexibility

With the release of new guidelines broken down into five categories, the US Education Department has offered increased clarity to state and local school systems wondering about specifics of government education stipulations.  As this blog posted about recently, the increased clarity is particularly important in light of the combined facts of continuing budgetary difficulties on the state level and the US Congress’ lack of movement on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/ No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The Education Department hopes that “ESEA flexibility enables states and districts to maintain a high bar for student achievement while better targeting resources to schools and students most in need of additional support.”

The guidelines have been broken down by the Education Department into five areas; exemplars mentioned by the Education Department are selected under each:

  1. Continuing to expose and close achievement gaps
    1. Through ESEA flexibility, Kentucky will: Hold nearly 1,000 additional schools accountable for subgroup performance than under NCLB; and as a result,  implement statewide initiatives to help close achievement gaps among students with disabilities and English Learners and their peers, and deliver support and technical assistance to these schools.
  2. Advancing accountability for graduation rates
    1. Oregon’s flexibility plan raises the bar for high school graduation higher than ever before, by specifying that: Half of a school’s performance rating is based on its overall graduation rate and the graduation rate of subgroups of students who, based on historical data, are least likely to receive a diploma; and all schools that keep graduation rates lower than 60 percent will receive increased attention and the highest level of interventions.
  3. Turning around the lowest-performing schools
    1. Massachusetts will: Classify schools in five levels, and classify districts based on the level of their lowest-performing schools, requiring each district to be responsible for every school within its jurisdiction; Require the lowest-performing schools to immediately develop and implement plans that will use comprehensive interventions to drive rapid, systemic change within three years; and take over schools that are chronically underperforming as its highest level of intervention.
  4. Protecting school and student accountability
    1. Maryland’s plan categorizes each of its schools into one of five performance strands: Delineating different levels of support based on the needs and performance features of each strand; and utilizing a performance index based on student growth; graduation rate; dropout rate; and student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science.
  5. Supporting teachers, leaders, and local innovation
    1. Wisconsin is utilizing ESEA flexibility to build its capacity by: Creating two new centers that will develop high-quality curricular resources aligned with college- and career-ready standards that will become a critical component of the state’s transition to new standards and serve as a hub of content experts to assist the whole state; and using the centers to implement college- and career-readiness training for teachers, principals, and other school staff that will be accessed easily at low- to no-cost across its districts.

In what Marc Tucker has called a “power grab”, the Education Department concluded their brief about the new guidelines by blaming Congress for a lack of new legislation and condemning No Child Left Behind:

The Department announced voluntary ESEA flexibility in September 2011 in the absence of a reauthorization – or congressional update – to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The most recent update to the federal education law – the No Child Left Behind Act – was due for reauthorization in 2007, but has governed a changing national education landscape for more than a decade. ESEA flexibility allows states and districts to replace the “one-size-fits-all,” prescriptive provisions of NCLB with state-led reforms tailored to address their most pressing education challenges.

Depending on your perspective, the Education Department is either doing the best they can in the interest of the states to reform the American education system without the help of Congress, or is taking advantage of a unique situation to pursue reform on their terms without the sort of broad support usually needed to carry out such reforms.

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