More “Flexibility” From The Feds

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Here’s another example of “flexibility” from the Feds that will directly impact parents who want to opt their students out. After we were told that the Every Student Succeeds Act will end the “national school board” and will “provide greater flexibility to local schools and states,” the U.S. Department of Education under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t seem to have received the memo.


Utah is the latest state to get slapped down when they asked the Feds, “Mother may I?”

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports:

After its series of requests for flexibility from federal education laws were denied, the Utah Board of Education has agreed to count opt-outs as students who took tests but failed in order to achieve a minimum participation rate of 95 percent.

That means schools with high numbers of students who opt-out of assessments — including many charter schools and some school districts — could see their performance ratings plummet, as those children are awarded zero points for the purpose of accountability calculations. The ratings are used in programs like Title 1, school grading and school turnaround efforts.

The change in policy is part of Utah’s plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which mandates that at least 95 percent of students participate in annual testing in grades three through eight and at least once in high school. Utah’s plan was approved Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education, following several delays as the state requested and failed to receive a waiver from the participation requirements, or a one-year reprieve from ESSA’s mandate.

Let’s say this again – The Every Student Succeeds Act does not provide flexibility. The Every Student Succeeds Act does not return local control. Those who think it does are either devious or deluded.

If the Trump Administration is serious about ratcheting back federal education policy they can start by convincing Congress to repeal this horrendous law.

Bill Gates Can’t Leave ESSA State Plans Alone Either

Photo credit: World Economic Forum (CC-By-SA 2.0)

The Associated Press reported this morning that Bill Gates has poured millions into trying to influence state plans required under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

AP’s Sally Ho writes:

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates saw an opportunity with a new federal education law that has widespread repercussions for American classrooms.

His non-profit, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has given about $44 million to outside groups over the past two years to help shape new state education plans required under the 2015 law, according to an Associated Press analysis of its grants. The spending paid for research aligned with Gates interests, led to friendly media coverage and even had a hand in writing one state’s new education system framework.

The grants illustrate how strategic and immersive the Microsoft founder can be in pursuit of his education reform agenda, quietly wielding national influence over how schools operate. Gates’ carefully curated and intersecting web of influence is often invisible but allows his foundation to drive the conversation in support of its vision on how to reshape America’s struggling schools systems.

Critics call it meddling by a foundation with vast wealth and resources. The Gates Foundation says it’s simply helping states navigate a “tectonic” shift in responsibility for education — from the federal government to more local control.

Read the rest.

We call it meddling because it is. My gosh, it must be nice to be able to buy education policy. Since the millions and millions of dollars he poured into Common Core was a colossal waste he thought he would try to be more influential at the state level.

I wish educrats would use the critical thinking skills they believe Common Core will impart to students and ask one simple question. Have Gates-funded reforms have actually worked?

Largely no, but they have dollar signs in their eyes. It’s hard to say no to that cash and Gates has plenty of it.

Colorado’s Example of “Flexibility” from the Feds

The Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to provide flexibility to states. “It reins in the national school board!” U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) proclaimed.

As we’ve noted several times since ESSA was passed this is not the case and states still have to play “Mother, may I” with the federal government.

Colorado is one such example as Chalkbeat reported this week that the state finally received approval for their accountability plan – one year and two revisions later.

Erica Meltzer writes:

Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.

“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.

“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.

Read the rest.

The takeaway here is that if a state wants to do something that the federal government disagrees with they can, provided they do it in addition to what the federal government requires.

That’s flexibility? That creates more work for the state and de-incentivizes states to go their own way.

This is not surprising, however, as state flexibility under ESSA is a farce.

DeVos Cites Flexibility While Complaining About ESSA State Plans

Betsy DeVos at CPAC 2017

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Committee
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared to talk about of both sides of her mouth when she addressed the Council of Chief State School Officers Legislative Council.

DeVos cited the flexibility of the Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) while, at the same time, complained about the state plans she has approved just met the “bare minimum.”

She made some encouraging remarks at first:

“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,” DeVos said. “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.”

She then went off the rails.

“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,” she said.

What? No, it doesn’t. In fact, it locked in many of the reforms implemented during President Obama’s administration.

Under the guise of “tough love” she chastised the school chiefs:

DeVos said she did not see much evidence that states have yet seized the supposed flexibility that ESSA provides in the state plans the Department has approved thus far.

“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,” DeVos said. “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,” she added.

When states still have to come to the U.S. Department of Education and say, “Mother, may I?” That is not flexibility, that is not local control, and that is still federal overreach.

Betsy DeVos Now Criticized for Giving Too Much Flexibility to States

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos can’t make anyone happy. I’ve highlighted how the U.S. Department of Education was criticized (rightly) for being nitpicky toward state accountability plans.

Now the Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), accused her of approving plans that flaunt federal law.

Education Week reports:

Addressing Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, Murray said, “If the department is today ignoring the agreement we made in the law and just choosing to implement whatever it feels like—which I believe they are in their approval of state plans so far—then this committee needs to hear from the secretary directly about how she intends to follow the laws that Congress agrees to.”

This isn’t a brand-new criticism from Murray, but rather a somewhat fleshed-out version of a previous complaint.

In a confirmation hearing for several Education Department nominees earlier this month, Murray made a general allusion to this concern. On Tuesday, Murray was a little more specific in her concerns about ESSA plans and how the law handles school improvement. But she didn’t single out the state or states she was worried about.

First, these remarks by Murray demonstrate that ESSA never gave true local control back to states. How stringently the law is enforced will depend on the administration. It is clear Murray expected there to be clear boundaries for states to stay within. Again, I say, that’s not local control

Secondly, if Murray has a concern, she should spell it out. Name names. It’s difficult to address or refute a challenge that is hopelessly vague. If she is going to make comments like these, she needs to bring up specifics – specific plans and the particular text in the law that plan violates.

Third, the only way for Congress to avoid political games like these is to repeal ESSA and genuinely devolve control of education policymaking back to the states. While states have to continue to ask “Mother, may I?” with the U.S. Department of Education they do not have control.

Betsy DeVos Continues Misleading Narrative About ESSA

Betsy DeVos was sworn in as Secretary of Education by Vice President Mike Pence.

Betsy DeVos was sworn in as Secretary of Education by Vice President Mike Pence.

U.S. Secretary of Education Besty DeVos gave an interview to the Associated Press on Monday where she continued to share the misleading narrative that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns power to the states.

They asked, “President Trump has talked a lot about undoing some of the Obama legacy. When it comes to education can you talk to us about the areas where you think you’ve been successful in this regard? What is the federal role, the federal government’s role in education and how do you accomplish those goals?”

She answered:

Well those are a number of questions. Let me start with what we believe the federal government’s role is in education and that is a much less heavy footprint than has been present in recent years. We really believe that states are the best laboratories of democracy on many fronts and we are in the middle of moving to implement the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which really dissolves power back to the states and gives them a lot more flexibility around meeting the needs of students in their unique states and with their unique situations. And we think that there has been an overreach in many cases on the part of the federal government in really intruding on states’ issues and states’ areas of responsibility as well as trying to engineer things from the federal level in a way that is not helpful to students overall.

We’ve covered this a number of times here. For starters, ESSA requires uniform standards and assessments. Two states – Arizona and New Hampshire – allow for a range of options for assessments for their elementary and middle schools. This, Common Core supporter Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute says is wrong. “(T)hey have erred in enacting laws that would let local elementary and middle schools select among a range of options when it’s time for annual standardized testing. That’s bad on policy grounds, and it clearly violates ESSA,” he wrote.

The Feds, of course, get to decide what “uniform” looks like.

DeVos has embraced the authority given to her under ESSA. ESSA has made a mess over teacher accountability.

So much for flexibility.

Has the U.S. Department of Education shown much flexibility in its nitpicking and rejection of state accountability plans? States were under the impression (a false impression I might add) that they were going to have flexibility. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander has wrung his hands about the inflexibility the U.S. Department of Education has shown but they are only doing what the law allows them to do.

This idea ESSA dissolves power back to the states is nonsense.

Jason Botel Is Reportedly Out After Michigan’s ESSA Plan Is Rejected

Acting Assistant Secretary of Elementary & Secondary Education Jason Botel
Photo credit: PSO Texas/Twitter

The Detroit Free Press reported last week that Michigan’s state accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act has been rejected, and Acting Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Jason Botel did the rejecting.

Michigan’s big plan to improve its schools has been deemed “insufficient” by federal education officials, but the state’s top educator said Tuesday evening he expects to resolve the problems within a week.

“The department has determined that the information provided by Michigan was insufficient … to adequately review” the plan, Jason Botel, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said in a letter sent Friday.

Michigan was among 16 states and the District of Columbia that submitted plans for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the law governing elementary and secondary education in the nation — earlier this year. Other states plan to submit their plans in the fall.

Botel was a surprise pick by the administration due to his support for Common Core, as well as, being a known progressive.

Now there are reports that Botel is out at the U.S. Department of Education. Alyson Klein at Education Week wrote that sources have said he may take on another role within the Trump administration or leave altogether.

Klein also noted the criticism that he has received:

In that role he’s gotten criticism, including from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and an ESSA architect. Alexander and others have said Botel has gone beyond the boundaries of the law, particularly in his feedback to Delaware which questioned the ambitiousness of the state’s goals. Alexander told Education Week that it appeared Botel hadn’t read the law carefully.

And some state chiefs were miffed at the Trump administration’s responses to their ESSA plans, in part because Trump officials questioned whether states could use Advanced Placement tests to gauge college readiness. Those responses were particularly surprising given that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had signaled a strong preference for local-control over education, and told chiefs in a closed-door meeting earlier this year that they could turn in their plans even if they weren’t fully complete.

It seems to me, though we will never know for certain, is that Botel wasn’t following DeVos’ lead on handling the state accountability plans. Rejecting her home state of Michigan’s plan may have been a bridge too far.  If he is out because of his handling of ESSA accountability plans, this could be an encouraging sign of greater flexibility going forward which is probably the best we can hope for until Congress repeals the law.

Right now all we can do is speculate what this means for the future.

ESSA Feedback Process Still Nit-picky After So-Called Change

Last month we pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education changed the process on how they provided feedback for state accountability plans. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ team provided the District of Columbia and Illinois feedback on their state accountability plans under this new process and it doesn’t appear that the Department is any less “nit-picky” than before when states complained.

Both were told by Acting Assitant Secretary Jason Botel to revise and resubmit their plans.

The District of Columbia was told:

  • They could not use ACT or SAT in its academic achievement indicators. They were told they can only use the annual assessment required under ESSA. (Which would be PARCC.)
  • Their alternate graduation rate calculation didn’t meet ESSA requirements.
  • They said the DC plan for how they will measure differentiating school performance was not clear.
  • They wanted more detail on how the District of Columbia would intervene with schools where fewer than 2/3 of their students graduate.
  • They need a definition for “consistently underperforming” subgroups. They said DC “includes some description of its methodology because it does not include a complete description, stating only that it will identify a school that ‘repeatedly falls below the threshold’ without describing that threshold, OSSE has not fully described its methodology for identifying these schools.”
  • They said DC’s exit criteria for “Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools” did not “ensure continued progress in improved student academic achievement and school success.”

Illinois was told:

  • They could not use an 8th-grade math exception because they are not administering an end-of-course assessment as its high school assessment.
  • They said Illinois has not fully described their graduate rate indicator. They also said the Illinois State Board of Education did not “identify and describe long-term goals for each extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate that are more rigorous than the long- term goals set for the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate.”
  • They said the Illinois State Board of Education “provides a long-term goal and measurements of interim progress for the percentage of English learners “making targets,” but does not describe what it means to “make targets” and whether making targets accounts for progress in achieving English language proficiency.”
  • They are uncertain about how test participation in Illinois will factor into measuring achievement.
  • They do not meet the federal timeline for its implementation of its measures of progress for determining English language proficiency.
  • They do not meet the required timeline for identifying low-performing schools for comprehensive support and improvement.
  • It is unclear whether the Illinois State Board of Education meets the statutory requirements for identification of schools with consistently underperforming subgroups because it does not include a definition of “consistently underperforming.”
  • Illinois did not provide more information about the rate in which low income and non-low income students and minority/non-minority students are taught by ineffective, out-of-field, and inexperienced teachers.

I just wanted to remind you again that the Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to provide more state control and flexibility.

What a joke.

HT: EdWeek

More From The Mother-May-I File

Politico highlighted three states seeking a testing waiver from the U.S. Department of Education under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) yesterday in their Morning Education daily update.

Florida, Kentucky and New Jersey are all asking federal officials for flexibility when it comes to testing in their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Florida and New Jersey both want more wiggle room for a provision of the law that allows eighth-grade students enrolled in advanced math to avoid “double testing,” letting them take an advanced math test for accountability and avoid taking their grade-level test. In a waiver request, New Jersey says it wants to extend that rule to lower middle school grades, not just eighth grade. “Since so many New Jersey middle school students have been successful in advanced-level mathematics coursework, it is in the best interest of students to administer end-of-course mathematics assessments that align with students’ coursework rather than the grade-level exam,” the state says in its request.

— Florida says in its waiver request that it wants to do the same, in addition to including science tests. The state is also asking for flexibility on how it tests English-language learners. POLITICO Florida reported early last month that the state wants an expansive waiver from federal requirements in order to preserve a school grading system developed under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

— Kentucky is seeking a waiver of an ESSA provision that caps at 1 percent the number of students with disabilities that states can test on alternate assessments.

I thought ESSA was supposed to do away with the need for waivers?

I guess not.

ESSA Feedback Process Changed After Criticism

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Alyson Klein at Education Week reports that after criticism over how the U.S. Department of Education provided feedback to states that have submitted an accountability plan change was made to the process.

Klein writes:

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team have gotten big blowback for their responses to states on their plans for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. State officials and even some DeVos’ GOP allies in Congress have said the department is being nit-picky, inconsistent, and going beyond the bounds of ESSA, which sought to rein in the federal policy footprint.

So now the agency is changing the process, Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department confirmed. Instead of just sending letters to states on their plans, the department will first have two-hour phone conversations with states and go over any the issues that peer reviewers had with their plans.

If states are able to explain a potential hiccup to the department’s satisfaction, the department may not mention it in the state’s official feedback letter, which would come out after the phone call.

The new process seems designed to give states a chance to answer the feds’ questions about their plans before official feedback is made public.

Read the rest here.

Klein notes that the nine states that have already gone through the process may call foul. I think it’s too little, too late. Providing nitpicky feedback over the phone just changes the mode of how that feedback is delivered. It still represents federal overreach. The change still does nothing to “reduce the footprint” of the federal government meddling in K-12 education without a constitutional mandate to do so.

I understand that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can’t ignore the law. States are still required to submit their state accountability plans. There is nothing in the law that says she has to reject any of the plans. She does have the freedom to approve them all. Scuttle the feedback teams, and bypass the Obama-era bureaucrats still working in the department. She should just approve them all regardless of what they say.

That action will prove she is serious about rolling back federal influence in K-12 education.