Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told state school officers they need to take greater advantage of the flexibility under ESSA. 
Photo: CPAC
Photo: CPAC

Betsy DeVos delivers ‘tough love’ to state school leaders

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke today to the nation's chief state school officers, delivering what her office called “tough love” regarding the state education blueprints submitted to her as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA is the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act. 

At the meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos also urged states to use the innovation allowed under ESSA to promote greater public school choice.

While DeVos didn’t cite Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal by name, she quoted him in her speech. 

Deal was not happy with the ESSA plan submitted by the Georgia Department of Education to DeVos, declaring that it “does not take full advantage of the opportunities for flexibility and innovation, nor does it set adequately high expectations for Georgia’s students.” He refused to sign onto the plan.

DeVos quoted the first part of Deal’s critique to bolster her contention state ESSA plans fell short in the vision and ambition expected by parents.

She noted, “Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won’t pass muster around kitchen tables. And I’m not alone in this view.”

Despite her concerns about low expectations, DeVos approved Georgia’s  Georgia’s 111-page plan in January.

Here is an excerpt from her speech: 

I didn’t write the law. It’s not a perfect law. But it’s the law.

I have refrained from expressing my opinion, thus far, out of respect for the process. But since we’re all in this room together now, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share some candid thoughts. Around my house, we call it “tough love.”

For too long, many of you have operated – and in many cases, been forced to operate -- as if your work was only accountable to folks in my office. As if all that mattered in education was a sign-off from Washington. Or, perhaps worse yet, fear of what would happen if an aptly-described “brutalist” building in southwest D.C. didn’t like your ideas.

My predecessors, from both parties, often fell into the trap of a top-down approach, too often ignoring those who walk side-by-side with students every day.

I’m committed to a different approach.

We won’t weaponize waivers to compel you to adopt this administration’s politics. If we wanted to dictate from D.C., I’d claim the mantle of our nation’s “choice chief” and reject plans because they don’t give parents more quality choices. But I haven’t done that. And I won’t. The Department is not the national school board.

This administration is committed to our Nation’s founding idea of separation of powers. The Department of Education doesn’t write laws, it implements them. Congress did its job. We’re doing ours. And now, you get to do yours.

ESSA was enacted partially in response to the widespread calls from state school chiefs – including many in this room -- to give you the flexibility and opportunity to address your state’s unique challenges. Well, this law gives you that chance.

The trouble is… I don’t see much evidence that you’ve yet seized it.

At least not in the ESSA plans I’ve thus far approved. Some have said that they didn’t write their plans “to win an ESSA competition.” Other plans look as though they were just written to get good grades from D.C. interest groups. Still other plans seem like they were written only for one purpose: compliance.

Let me be clear: just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students.

Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won’t pass muster around kitchen tables. And I’m not alone in this view.

Some of your own governors – Republicans and Democrats -- didn’t like your plans either and refused to sign off on them. Some were vocal about it.

One was disappointed his state’s plan did “not take full advantage of the opportunities for flexibility and innovation.”

Another warned his state’s superintendent that “adding layers of bureaucratic paperwork does little to help low-performing schools.” Still another governor lamented that his state’s plan “stymies any attempt to hold schools accountable for student performance and includes provisions aimed at preserving the status quo in failing schools.”

And by the way, I agree.

But what do these perspectives say to teachers in your state? What do they say to parents? What do these sentiments say to students?

ESSA invites a different approach.

Let’s start with ESSA’s “Annual State Report Cards,” one of the law’s calls for transparency. Parents need to know – and have the right to know -- what is and is not working about their children’s schools.

Some parents want to be equipped to make a different choice for their child, and others want to know where their child’s current school needs to get better.

Parents need information that is accessible, relevant and actionable. But too many parents who read their state’s plan would have every right to think much is obfuscated….As if their state doesn’t want anyone to know how their students are really doing.

Some states proposed accountability schemes that were so complicated, schools would be accountable to no one. Another state took a simple concept like a color-coded dashboard and managed to make it nearly indecipherable.

We must do better for parents. For students. For our country. Louisiana, for example, uses an understandable A through F grading system with some pretty clear consequences for “F” schools, including making other options available to parents whose children are assigned to those schools.

We also should be able to clearly gauge the progress of all our nation’s students. That, too, hasn’t been a simple task over the years. Previous efforts focused on a goal – such as higher graduation rates -- and if you didn’t meet it, you’d face the ire of “Big Ed.”

While that goal might have been laudable, we’ve seen what happens. Just look at the ongoing scandal right here in our Nation’s capital, where school administrators fudged the rules and graduated kids who otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible – all in response to top-down pressure.

Under ESSA, states must measure students annually in reading and math, but the law invites you to determine the standards, determine the instruments and find solutions for the rest.

Parents and teachers alike agree that education should move away from simply “teaching to the test.” We all know we need new solutions.

I’ve heard many complaints about how inadequate current testing regimens are, but only four states have shown interest in applying for ESSA’s Innovative Assessment Pilot – inspired by New Hampshire’s performance-based assessment.

The Granite State reduced standardized testing and enhanced locally-developed common performance assessments. They were designed to support deeper learning and to be more integrated into students’ day-to-day work.

Assessing the average assesses no one. Because there is no average student.

New Hampshire’s is but one new approach, but there are many other approaches that have yielded promising results for students. So, explore them!

Title I, as you all know, was established to assist students who come from low-income families. These students need your creative thinking, but too many plans are short on creative solutions.

“Direct Student Services” is one vehicle you can use to better serve these students. You have the option to set aside up to three percent of Title I funds to provide students with learning opportunities that would otherwise not be available. We actually asked Congress to raise that to 5 percent in our 2019 budget proposal.

But to date, only two states – New Mexico and Louisiana – have sought that flexibility.

Louisiana will use its 3 percent -- nearly 9 million dollars -- to expand its course choice program, offering new options to students. I’m encouraged that Louisiana is doing something, but ESSA encourages all states to use Title I funds creatively. Because today too many students are told “no.”

A student is bored in her math class and would be more challenged in an AP course? “Sorry, we don’t have AP here,” the system says. A student wants to learn a skill like welding because she wants to work for the advanced manufacturer in town? “Nope,” the system tells the student, “we don’t have that available either.” I’m not comfortable with settling for those answers. I hope you aren’t either.

Course choice is but one way a state can embrace the law’s flexibility in the interest of students. States could also use their 3 percent to incentivize enrollment in public schools of choice.

ESSA also enables you to take an additional 7 percent of Title I funds and use them to empower local educators and districts to experiment with new approaches. For example in Nevada, 30 Clark County schools work together in what the state calls a “Partnership Network.” The network teams with local leaders who have fresh perspectives.

Nevada boasts this is not a “set it and forget it” approach. Instead, they are constantly evaluating to ensure the funds are spent in the most productive way.

Responsible use of taxpayer funds is important. That’s why the law requires the public disclosure of how resources flow down to the school level. States like Georgia, Rhode Island and Colorado have already been doing so for years. And I applaud them for that. Next year, all states will need to show hard-working families how their money is being spent.

But I’d encourage you to go even further. Why not show how much money is being spent on each student and why? Is that different from the school down the street? And if so, why?

The student-centered funding pilot takes us in that direction. This competitive grant enables money to follow children based on their needs – not buildings or systems.

So as I’ve pointed out, there are some bright spots among the plans. But even the best plan is short on the meaningful solutions that the law encourages. Even the best plan doesn’t take full advantage of the law’s built-in flexibility.

And launching a PR push to defend these plans doesn’t change that. It misses the point.

Because our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. Or the “NCLB” approach. Or the “RTTT” approach. The “Washington knows best” approach.

So, don’t you think it’s time to do something different? To try something new that enhances student achievement?

ESSA doesn’t stand in your way. Our department won’t stand in your way either. States are better equipped to find answers to their unique questions than Washington is. But states should always look for ways to pass down flexibility and empower teachers and parents – those closest to students.

Even though I’ve not yet had the opportunity to approve California’s plan, its governor was spot on when he said: “This is not going to be solved in Sacramento. Kids learn at home and in the classroom…People who really want to help in a school that is not performing should go to the principal and find out what they need. Local empowerment. That’s what it’s all about. The age of micro-management from Washington or Sacramento is over as far as I am concerned.”

Governor Brown is right!

Because the imperative to do something shouldn’t have to come from Washington. It shouldn’t have to come from your state capital. The imperative to do better comes from students. We are accountable to them!

Better to try something new than to just hope for a better result.

Because hope alone is not a strategy. Students don’t have time to wait while adults hope plans will work.

That’s why your ESSA plans aren’t a ceiling. There is no ceiling. There is no ceiling on what students can achieve. These plans merely establish the floor!

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...