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Federal flexibility will bring changes to NC public education

President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10.
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10. AP

When I took on the education beat almost 14 years ago, the federal No Child Left Behind Act was starting to shape the public education landscape.

It fizzled out several years ago. In December, Congress belatedly approved its replacement, the Every Child Succeeds Act, which eases up on the federal micromanaging that characterized the earlier version. Like the No Child Left Behind Act, which was approved under Republican President George W. Bush, the new act won bipartisan support in Congress.

The new flexibility means North Carolina’s education leaders have a lot of work to do this year. By 2017 they must figure out new approaches to testing students, rating schools, evaluating teachers, spending federal money and taking over low-performing schools.

And Superintendent June Atkinson says she wants educators, parents and business leaders to be part of those decisions. Expect a series of public forums and focus groups in coming months.

State officials are just wading into the bill, which Atkinson says weighs in at roughly 1,100 pages.

One thing is clear, she and other experts say: State officials who have gotten used to blaming the feds for heavy-handed rules now have to take responsibility for making better ones.

“This legislation puts the fault – or the praise – at the feet of the state,” Atkinson said.

The national Education Writers Association recently hosted a Web briefing by two journalists who have covered the federal legislation, Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report and Alyson Klein of Education Week. They, too, say 2016 will be a crucial year for state and local officials to put their new flexibility to use.

New testing tactics?

No Child Left Behind fueled what many consider an overemphasis on testing, with scores used to rate not only students but teachers and schools.

ESSA (we might as well get used to a new acronym) still requires state math and reading exams for students in grades 3-8, plus at least one high school test. That’s similar to NCLB requirements, but the new act offers more flexibility in how the tests are administered.

Atkinson notes the federal government will allow seven states to try innovative approaches to testing. North Carolina is exploring a “proof of concept” approach that includes three interim tests, designed to help teachers see how students are doing on specific skills while there’s time to make a difference, before the year-end exam.

It’s too early to say how that might play out in the long run, but Atkinson said she thinks the state has a good shot at being one of the testing innovators.

Deeper dive on schools

Student performance on exams will continue to be a factor in rating schools, with results broken out by race and reported for groups such as low-income, disabled and limited-English students.

But the new law requires states to add a new indicator, which also must be reported for all groups. It offers a menu of five options – student engagement, school climate/safety, completion of advanced courses, educator engagement or post-secondary readiness – or allows states to come up with their own. That has sparked speculation that states might try something like “grit ratings,” based on a California experiment in grading students on such character traits as grit and sensitivity.

Atkinson said one looming question is whether state lawmakers will adjust the recently introduced school letter grades to match the system that emerges from ESSA. If not, we could end up with a flashback to a decade or so ago, when North Carolina’s “ABC” ratings clashed with the convoluted “AYP” ratings that came from No Child Left Behind.

I think all of us who have to use or explain school ratings will be grateful if the state emerges with one system that’s sophisticated enough to be meaningful but simple enough that it doesn’t take several pages of footnotes to explain.

Helping low performers

States will be required to “identify and intervene” in the bottom 5 percent of schools, as well as any high school with a graduation rate below 67 percent. Schools where subgroups are doing poorly must also be identified, even if the overall school performance isn’t in the bottom 5 percent.

Atkinson says the new federal standards would put about 120 N.C. schools on the intervention list, while 581 are currently on the state’s low-performing list. Legislators define that as any school with a grade of D or F that didn’t exceed growth targets.

It might be confusing to have two conflicting “bad lists,” but the bigger challenge is figuring out what to do about low-performing schools, however they’re defined. So far both the state and federal government have proven far more effective at labeling schools than improving them.

Freedom on teacher evaluations

States like North Carolina that eventually got waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements had to incorporate student test performance into teacher evaluations. ESSA gets the federal government out of teacher ratings.

Atkinson said she doesn’t expect the controversial “value-added” ratings to vanish entirely. But she said the evaluation form is likely to be revised, with less emphasis on those ratings.

Fewer strings on spending

Federal money should come with fewer strings attached, with states and school districts getting block grants that merge several sources of funding.

That should be welcome news. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools often lament the lack of flexibility in much of the district’s budget (the feds provide more than $148 million of the $1.4 billion total).

Atkinson said the state has yet to figure out exactly what the changes mean for education spending.