Looking Forward to ESSA

What Should You be Planning as a District?

By Heath Morrison, McGraw-Hill Education Business Unit President, K-12

In the coming months, we should learn more about the individual ESSA plans by state. While some states have already submitted their plans to the U.S. Department of Education, many more will be reaching for the September deadline. Previously, we discussed what types of issues and initiatives you can expect your state to address in their ESSA plan. Now, I want to focus on you — what can you, as a district, do to prepare for ESSA? What elements of your school demographics, funding, and learning environment should you consider in the months approaching the 2017–2018 school year? To support you in your preparation, I’ve outlined five key items that districts should focus on in planning for ESSA.

Personalized Learning

ESSA allows for more flexibility and state ownership. Along with that flexibility comes the opportunity to vary the way you, as a district, differentiate instruction and monitor student performance. ESSA recognizes that every student learns at a different pace, and, in order to support all students, provides districts with many opportunities to implement personalized learning. ESSA works to make personalized learning attainable — under the new law, teachers will measure student achievement growth, which is best supported by personalized learning tools. Title IV, if funded, would provide schools with more financial resources to take that next step towards personalized learning implementation.

Special Populations

ESSA pays close attention to the needs of special populations in funding, reporting, and support. As your state rolls out their plan, it will be important for your district to consider what kinds of special populations are present in your student body, and how you will best serve them under ESSA. In terms of reporting, ESSA adds three new subgroups to the existing reporting list: homeless, children of the military, and children in the foster care system. The new law also requires states to develop their own accountability system for English learners — states will have to monitor EL progress and track the number of students who become English proficient. The increased responsibility may mean that your district will need to consider any necessary changes to effectively support your EL students.


Under ESSA, states will have far more flexibility in deciding how to assess students. For your district, this could mean big changes. The grade levels at which students must be assessed will not change, but the way those students are assessed could potentially undergo a radical shift. States can now develop their own competency based testing, incorporate elements outside of a classroom setting into their assessment system, and determine the length of assessment. So keep close track of the assessment strategies in your state’s plan — it might influence major changes in your classroom, and launch a period of pedagogical exploration.


The new subgroups I mentioned under ‘Special Populations’ will become important when considering your state’s reporting system under ESSA. ESSA requires that districts report their progress in the subgroups that you’re already familiar with, but also in the three new subgroups — the homeless, children of the military, and children in the foster care system. ESSA also requires that districts report school findings outside of academics, such as bullying and school climate. Districts will also have to report chronic absenteeism, as the creators of ESSA understand attendance to be a key factor in student success. In preparing for ESSA, be sure to think outside of academic reporting, and consider how your district will handle reporting additional, whole-child oriented data. To kickstart your journey with improving school climate, take a look at the Great Kindness Challenge:

Professional Development

Professional Development is facing significant changes under ESSA. In fact, the law provides a new definition for the term altogether. I won’t rewrite the entire definition here, but some key takeaways are that PD is: sustained, classroom-focused, and job-embedded. Essentially, ESSA pushes for professional development that transitions away from the currently predominant isolated seminar model, and towards a more continuous learning system. ESSA PD guidelines also reflect the law’s student learning initiatives, in encouraging that professional development be personalized and research-driven. This will be key for district leaders moving forward under ESSA. Consider: how can you give your teachers the ongoing, personalized, and relevant learning experience that you provide your students, thereby empowering a full community of teachers and learners?

Heath Morrison serves as Business Unit President, K-12, for McGraw-Hill Education. Previously, Heath served as Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for McGraw-Hill Education, and as an educator. In 2012, Heath was named AASA’s National Superintendent of the Year for his work in the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada. He was also named Nevada Superintendent of the Year in 2011. Heath most recently served as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Heath began his career as a social studies teacher in Virginia and Maryland and quickly moved into administration, becoming principal of both a middle and high school as well as a community superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Planning and a Masters of Educational Administration from the University of Maryland. Heath graduated with a bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary.


Adams, Caralee J. “ESSA Highlights Absenteeism as a Key Challenge for Schools.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Hirsh, Stephanie. “Learning Forward’s PD Watch: Put Professional Learning Front and Center in ESSA Plans.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Mesecar, Doug. “Voice from the Industry: ESSA and Its Impact on Personalized Learning.” EdNet Insight. MDR, 31 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Mitchell, Corey. “ESSA’s Impact for English Learners Unclear.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

“The Every Student Succeeds Act: Impacts of the New Law.” NASP Online. National Association of School Psychologists, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

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