A new plan from the Ohio Department of Education outlines the trajectory of the state’s education goals over the next 10 years.
On February 2, ODE released its draft plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). December 10, 2015, President Barack Obama signed the education law with bipartisan congressional support. It requires each state to come up with a plan to comply with federal regulations.
Ohio’s plan is the culmination of more than a year of planning and outreach to educators and community members.
“We really did work hard to go out and talk to stakeholders, and we structured this summary as such, to say ‘Here's what's required. Here's what we heard, and based on that here’s what we’re proposing,” says Chris Woolard, Senior Executive Director for Accountability and Continuous Improvement for the Ohio Department of Education.
Background. What is ESSA?
The law that creates federal oversight over and funding for public education is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It was first signed into law in 1965 by Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty.” It was reauthorized (and updated) in 2001 under President George W. Bush as No Child Left Behind. ESSA is the most recent iteration that kicks in during the 2017-2018 school year.
Obama era law under the Trump Administration
President Donald Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was confirmed by a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice-President Mike Pence on Tuesday, February 7, 2017. During the heated Senate confirmation hearings that preceded the vote she said she’d comply with the law.
DeVos will oversee the implementation of the ESSA, but it would take an act of Congress to dismantle it. The same day DeVos was confirmed, the U.S. House voted to undo two regulations under ESSA, those covering Accountability and Teacher Preparation. The Senate has yet to vote on these changes.
The law was supported by many Republicans, especially because it gives states more of a say in its implementation. Ohio Republican State House Representative and House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner says that’s the part of ESSA that he likes most, but he’s hopeful the Trump Administration will make greater changes.
“I think that there’s potential that we may either get more flexibility or there may be some things here that could be revised in the coming months that may impact the plan that has just been put together,” says Brenner.
What is this plan?
In many ways Ohio’s draft plan lays out education standards that already make up state and federal law. It details 10 year goals to improve test scores, graduation rates, and student opportunities.
“I think there was a misconception out there originally when it was passed 14 months ago, or so, that it sort-of created a clean slate on all of those reforms. And it really doesn’t do that,” says Woolard from ODE.
Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (one of the state’s teachers’ unions), applauds the state’s work to get feedback from around Ohio, but her concern is whether the discussion allowed for enough creativity.
“Our disappointment, from the very beginning, is that in Ohio ESSA has been treated as a set of technical questions,” says Cropper. “We had an opportunity through the stakeholder engagement, through all of the regional meetings that happened to really get at the root at what do parents, community members, educators have for our children? What vision do we have for our children?”
One area where Ohioans wanted to see change was in state testing. On February 13, 30 Ohio administrators signed on to a white paper in response to the state draft asking ODE to consider reducing the number of state required tests.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from parents, students, educators that there is way too much of an emphasis on testing and that a lot of instructional time is lost to testing students without getting results back that is beneficial in helping shape what these children need to know,” says Cropper.
The sentiment is an echo of what many people said in a series of 10 stakeholder meetings held last summer around Ohio: Ohio kids take too many tests. ODE officials acknowledge the public is interested a reduction in testing, but they say each test has a purpose and changes to the assessment system should be done thoughtfully.
The State House Education Committee chair says one approach could be to limit younger kids to assessments of their English and Math skills.
“I think once the kids get the fundamentals down… if they can read and they can comprehend, the science and the social studies will fix itself in the end,” says Brenner.
Although Ohio students won’t be tested less often the federal ESSA law does attempt to take some emphasis away from standardized tests by looking at what are called “Non-Academic Measures.”
The state could choose from a number of possibilities, but choosing one was tricky.
“The difficulty in finding this non-academic measure is finding something that is appropriate for all schools across the state,” says Cropper.
Ohio settled on Chronic Absenteeism—defined as students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year.
“If they’re not in class, they aren’t learning,” says Brenner who points out that the recently passed Ohio House Bill 410, known as the Truancy Bill, changes the state’s approach to how schools deal with kids missing school. The move shifts from punitive measures to more supportive measures that tackle the root problems that cause students to miss school.
Brenner says that absenteeism can be a problem for all types of schools in the state, but often it hits low-income urban districts hardest. He would like ODE to consider other non-academic measures, like how well school address the wellness needs of their student body.
Much of the intended purpose of ESSA (and ESEA for that matter) is to address inequities in public education. One way the law tries to hold schools accountable and see that all kids have access to a quality education is by requiring schools to report how students perform on tests, broken down into subgroups. They include racial categories, economically disadvantaged, disability, English language learners, kids in foster care, homeless kids, kids involved in the justice system, and military dependents.
Schools don’t publically report the test scores of each student. Instead, to protect individual privacy, schools only report the performance of children from a subgroup when they have a critical mass—what’s called N-size. That number in Ohio used to be 30. Under the new plan, it will now be 15. That smaller number makes districts more accountable for vulnerable student populations.
“We want to look at how all the students in your school are doing, but we also want to make sure that --like for example-- all the students with disabilities, all the students who are on IEPs are doing in your school, or all the students who are economically disadvantaged. And we're going to show some data on that group,” says Woolard from ODE.
Under the larger reporting number, Ohio was only counting about half of Hispanic children in public schools. The same was the case for students learning English as a second language. Without the data, some kids can seem to disappear into the larger population, and districts that serve those students well don’t get credit for their hard work.
“A high N-size of 30 was making our large urban school districts look like they were doing worse than neighboring school districts, because they happen to have these subgroups and the neighboring districts did not have 30 students to create a sub-group,” says Cropper.
The Plan Can Still Change
In a public webinar overviewing the Ohio plan, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria emphasized, “It is a draft.” He encouraged the public to give their feedback and that changes can continue to be made.
“A lot of times we’ll hear people will say, ‘If it’s not in the state plan it’s not happening.’ And that’s just not correct,” said DeMaria.
Ohio’s Draft ESSA Plan is open to public comment until March 6. It will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on April 3.