4 Takeaways from PDE’s ESSA Work Group Report

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) released the findings from its stakeholder work groups outlining recommendations for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

To be more precise, the findings were released by the American Institutes for Research, a non-profit research group hired by the Department.  That distinction matters since PDE is going to great lengths to create some distance between itself and the groups’ recommendations.

The first page of the report has a disclaimer that looks like a Surgeon Generals Warning – “IMPORTANT NOTE FROM THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: The workgroup recommendations described in this report reflect the work and consensus of each stakeholder work group. These recommendations will be carefully evaluated by the Department…”

Translation:  If you don’t like what’s in this report, blame the working groups, not us!

The 111-page report is far from a beach read, but it’s an important document. The recommendations will serve as the starting point for negotiations regarding how Pennsylvania will leverage its new flexibility to make changes to a sweeping range of policies, from teacher evaluations and assessments to teacher prep and accountability.

Here are my four main takeaways:

If I had a nickel for every time education PHDs say the research is inconclusive, I could close PA’s budget gap 

For practically every recommendation, the authors state that it isn’t backed by rigorous research.  Here’s just a sample of some of the statements:

On reducing time spent on tests: “Overall, there is little evidence”

On a student centered approach to accountability: “There is little evidence of their efficacy”

On a tiered support/intervention system: “There are insufficient causal studies to provide a clear roadmap”

On increasing teacher applicants through marketing: “At this point little research exists”

On supporting principals with mentoring/coaching: “There is limited evidence”

I could go on but you get the point.  To clear the hurdle of “evidence-based” or “scientifically rigorous” is a high-bar.  Not surprisingly, when you crowd-source policy recommendations through diverse stakeholder groups, the ideas lack such rigor.

From my perspective, this doesn’t undermine the value of these recommendations; rather, it demonstrates the shortcomings of existing education research.   Everything is contextual.  Everything depends on implementation.  Nothing is a silver bullet.

Few of the policy recommendations are actually policy recommendations

Instead, they are broad, abstract squishy value statements.  This is often what happens when the goal is to reach consensus.  The working groups consisted of around 20 people and 75 percent had to support a policy to adopt it…and they had to do that in three sessions.   So rather than debate the nuances of what type of supports and interventions PDE should provide to struggling schools, they ended up with the following:

“Recommendation 4: The intervention in Pennsylvania’s accountability systems are evidence-based and applied in ways that are flexible and responsive to varying needs of students, communities, and schools to support the growth of every child.”

What does this mean?  It uses good buzzwords like “evidence-based,” “flexible” and “responsive to varying needs” but it doesn’t actually say anything.

A great way to assess if a policy is diluted is to see if it meets these two criteria:  1. It would be impossible for a reasonable person to disagree with and 2. If you handed it to a legislative staffer, there would be insufficient information for him/her to even write a draft of a bill.  Think of a statement like “All students deserve great teachers.”  No one wants kids to have BAD teachers.  And you can’t write a bill based on that sentiment.  That’s because the real debate is over how do you define a “great” teacher and what specific actions can the state do to recruit, develop, and retain them?  Similarly, saying that the intervention system should be flexible and responsive is meaningless unless you actually identify what kinds of interventions you are talking about!

Authors cite strong research from Massachusetts and Center for American Progress

One of the few areas in education reform where the research is pretty clear is on what it takes for a school turnaround to be successful.  In 2015, PennCAN released a report called Real Accountability, Real Results that highlighted some of this research and urged PA to follow the lead of successful states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Massachusetts.  I’m glad to see that the work groups also cited Massachusetts as a state to emulate when crafting a plan to help struggling schools.

The report also mentions the research from the Center for American Progress that identifies seven criteria for successful turnaround, including giving the state the authority to intervene in failing schools.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Senate passed SB6, which would have given the state this authority.  Unfortunately, this legislative session will expire without the bill becoming law, but we remain optimistic that PDE will review the research presented in their own report and come up with a plan to make aggressive, but necessary, changes in our Commonwealth’s lowest performing schools.

Kudos to PDE for running a thoughtful process

The beauty of being part of the 50CAN network is that I have colleagues across the country to learn from and share ideas.  What I’ve learned from our conversations is that Pennsylvania is way ahead of the game in terms of the amount of time and energy the Department has devoted to developing its statewide plan.

Over the summer, while few states were even thinking about ESSA, President Obama’s Education Secretary came to Harrisburg to praise Pennsylvania for its ESSA stakeholder engagement process.  In the end, over 80 people served on committees, including many talented education leaders and PennCAN partners.

I’ll give credit where credit is due.  The process so far has been inclusive but at PennCAN we don’t care about the process…we care about the product.  And this report demonstrates that PDE has a long way to go towards drafting a comprehensive plan.  As PA’s Education Secretary, Pedro Rivera, said at the event where they released the report, “This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity.”  Now let’s not waste it!

Jonathan is the Executive Director of PennCAN.

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