Let’s see who’s serious about improving schools
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April marked a big milestone for the education community and for parents across the country eager to ensure high-quality education for their children.

After months of meetings, more than 10 states have submitted their long-awaited school accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The remainder of the states are set to come forward by September with their own accountability plans.

The plans lay out how states will hold schools accountable and thus help ensure student achievement. But for parents and education experts alike, they also provide a window into which states are truly serious about improving K-12 education. And there is no question that the country needs a dose of serious—the statistics on education as a nation are troubling.

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While high school graduation rates have hit an all-time high, up to 60 percent of first-year college students still require remediation in English, math, or both—meaning that there is a long way to go towards ensuring that students leave high school prepared for the rigors of college, or a career.

 

None of us are in a position to defend the status quo.

Education issues are hot button topics at the national level, and even more so at the local level. They are rightly linked with the emotion of concerned parents worried for the future of their children and they represent a fault line as old as the republic demarcating perceptions of federal and state responsibilities.

As a result, the time and effort to build each of these plans should not be underestimated. An enormous number of committed stakeholders including  concerned legislators and educators have moved mountains to put them together—and likely faced tough negotiations and setbacks along the way.

Given the central role they will play in closing those education deficits, the organization that I lead, the Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners and a bipartisan group of the nation’s leading nonpartisan education experts, is conducting an independent peer review of the state plans.

Our aim is to go beyond the constraints of a federal process that is more focused on compliance, capture the strengths and weaknesses of each state’s plan, and provide feedback to state policymakers and advocates interested in enhancing school quality in their communities.

So what are we looking for as we review the accountability plans?

Although states have the flexibility and freedom to create their own plans for educating students, certain principles are non-negotiable when it comes to setting students up for future success.

For example, high standards and high-quality assessments aligned to those standards are a start, but the plans must also articulate statewide goals for improving reading and math achievement with a focus on closing pernicious gaps in achievement.

They must also ensure that parents have access to meaningful data that will help determine whether students are on track for success. And they must articulate ways for policymakers and communities to monitor school performance and take serious action to help schools that aren’t serving certain populations of students well or have been historically failing.

What’s particularly empowering for state-level education leaders is that under ESSA the federal role in education accountability decisions has been pared significantly, compared to now-scuttled requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, the previous law governing K-12 education.

While ESSA requires that states establish student performance goals and then hold schools accountable for student achievement, states are allowed much greater leeway in designing accountability systems for schools.

In short, as we’ve moved past the No Child Left Behind law, states have flexibility to create a plan that meets their unique needs and sets a true vision of success for all students.

States have been presented with an opportunity to leave a lasting mark on education and help better prepare their children for college and careers in tomorrow’s economy. Let’s see if governors and legislators can embrace, with integrity, the opportunity they were given to own and self-regulate a bold vision for improving their states.

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Collaborative for Student Success.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.