Highlights from state ESSA plans

From the Field: A periodic reflection by Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee on the most important conversations happening today among state and district school leaders.


For the year and a half since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed, leaders have talked about the ways in which it creates greater room for innovation and creativity in the effort to improve educational opportunity. This month, several states had the chance to put those claims into action, as they submitted their plans in the first of two possible windows to do so.

Among those states were five Chiefs for Change members. It’s worth highlighting some of the most interesting and significant elements of their plans, which I’ve organized into five main areas, and looking at some specific examples. Together, they demonstrate what it means to employ innovative strategies that will lead to dramatic improvements in student outcomes.

1. Strong Accountability for All Schools.

Perhaps the most talked-about question in ESSA, the law that replaced No Child Left Behind, is to what degree school systems would be held accountable for the progress of all students, particularly those groups that have struggled in the past. CFC members have offered models for setting clear goals and for holding all schools accountable with easy-to-understand summative ratings (such as A-F grades, or a 1–5 star system) across multiple indicators. Further, these systems place a premium on student academic achievement and growth to ensure accountability systems are rooted in whether students are succeeding in the classroom.

  • In Washington, DC, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education is bringing together all of the city’s schools — traditional public schools and public charter schools — under a single, uniform accountability system. By providing parents consistent information about quality, families will be armed with the information they need to navigate the enrollment process in an environment of school choice, support continuous improvement efforts in their communities, and advocate on behalf of their children. DC’s new accountability system puts significant weight (70%) on academic achievement and growth, while including novel indicators of school quality that capture other aspects of the school’s environment and reflect DC’s particular challenges and priorities, like chronic absence, the quality of child-adult interactions in early childhood classrooms, and the percentage of students re-enrolling in the school each year.

2. Improving Chronically Struggling Schools.

Chiefs for Change states are going above what the law requires to make sure that states — not just districts — have an active role in turning around the lowest-performing schools, ensuring that significant changes in school structure, governance, staffing, and instruction occur by empowering districts with greater autonomy and flexibility to make these changes themselves, or directly stepping in when districts fail to do so. While improvement strategies take different forms in different states to reflect their local contexts, a clear theme across all of our members is that school turnaround is a state’s responsibility, and that dramatic progress can be achieved.

  • Massachusetts is using an innovative alternative governance model to create empowerment zones to partner local communities with external providers to provide the capacity and autonomy to spur dramatic improvements and changes in the lowest-performing schools without removing them from the district’s control. In addition, the state will continue to use its receivership authority when other improvement strategies have been exhausted and it is in the best interest of kids. To date, the state’s efforts are paying off. For example, since Lawrence Public Schools was placed in receivership in 2013, student proficiency in English language arts, mathematics, and science have risen significantly, the achievement gap between English learners and other students has been reduced, and dramatic improvements have been made in graduation and dropout rates.
  • In addition, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada all have created achievement or recovery school districts to provide new governance, promote strong leadership, and provide additional resources, flexibility, and autonomy to those working to turn around chronically underperforming schools.

3. Investing in Evidence-Based Practices.

Chiefs for Change members are committed to using federal funds to target money to districts and schools that need them most, invest resources in proven strategies, and leverage federal dollars to support key state priorities. Rather than distributing school improvement dollars by a simple formula, our states are distributing these funds competitively to ensure that districts with the greatest needs, and with the strongest plans to implement evidence-based interventions, get the resources to improve.

  • Nevada is creating a state-approved list of evidence-based strategies and prioritizing grants to districts that have entered voluntary performance compacts with the state and/or that are using a multi-year, state-approved school improvement strategy.
  • Massachusetts will design its competition for school improvement dollars using an application process and interviews with districts, scored on a rubric, to ensure funding is only allocated to schools that demonstrate strong capacity to implement a strategic, actionable approach based on a data analysis and community involvement to implement the plan.

4. Strengthening Teaching and School Leadership.

CFC members are leveraging Title II funds, including new set-asides in ESSA for innovative teacher and school leader preparation programs and for activities to support principals and other schools leaders, to build a strong educator pipeline. For example, in New Mexico:

  • The state’s Principals Pursuing Excellence program, a two-year leadership program, provides principals in struggling schools with a turnaround mentor. Participants saw their schools improve more than 3 times the average school in the state in ELA and 1.7 times in math.
  • The state has launched multiple initiatives to promote teacher voice and input on policy, including the Secretary’s Teacher Advisory Council, an Annual Teacher Leader Summit that’s expected to draw 1,000 teachers this summer, and a new Teacher Leadership Network to help classroom educators develop leadership and advocacy skills and serve as liaisons between their colleagues and the state on key strategies and systems.
  • The state is taking bold steps to ensure educators are ready for the classroom on day one. It is revising its Quality Review to enhance accountability for educator preparation programs, including new program report cards to provide quantitative data on candidate, employment, and student learning outcomes achieved by program graduates. The report card will be accompanied by qualitative feedback to add further context on program strengths and guide improvement efforts. New Mexicois also using ESSA to expand residencies as part of teacher preparation programs, moving toward requiring all programs to offer at least a year-long clinical residency.

5. Expanding the Range of Educational Choices for Families and Students.

CFC members are leading in promoting greater access to high-quality, meaningful learning options for students and their families — and expanding what choice means.

  • New Mexico and Louisiana are taking advantage of new flexibility in ESSA to set aside Title I funds — in partnership with districts — to provide greater instructional choices through Direct Student Services (DSS), particularly for students in struggling schools with the greatest academic needs. Instructional choice can be a powerful strategy to improve access to quality educational services in rural communities, where school choice isn’t a feasible option for families. DSS funds can be used to provide students access to advanced coursework not typically offered in the student’s home school (such as AP/IB courses, dual enrollment, or advanced CTE courses), help accelerate students’ learning toward a high school diploma (including for over-age, under-credited students), and support personalized learning initiatives — in addition to supporting transportation for students who exercise school choice.

While these examples are a small fraction of the comprehensive plans these states have put forward, they offer a vision of what it means to take advantage of the new opportunities available under ESSA. The law offers a wide range of options — but that translates into better outcomes for students only through visionary leadership and hard work.