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Recommendations on Implementing ESSA

By Gary M. Ratner

October 6, 2016


This is the fourth in an education series about how the District of Columbia could become a national model for improving low-achieving schools under a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Over five weeks, D.C. Bar member Gary M. Ratner, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Citizens for Effective Schools, will explore key issues at D.C. public schools and the potential effects of the new law. Over the last three weeks, Ratner examined the magnitude of the problem as the D.C. Public Schools undergo a search for a new chancellor, discussed how ESSA changes the No Child Left Behind Act's (NCLB) school improvement and accountability strategies, and Congress's apparent rationale for shifting its school improvement and accountability strategies and what works to turn around low-achieving schools. 

The opinions expressed are the author's own.


During the 2017–18 school year, ESSA will become fully effective around the country. What can we do to maximize the likelihood of its success? I offer my recommendations on ESSA implementation for two D.C. entities: the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).

Recommendations for OSSE:

1. Consult With Stakeholders on State Plan

ESSA implementation requires action by both the "state educational agency"—in D.C., it's OSSE—and the "local educational agency," DCPS. To provide the required "timely and meaningful consultation" on state plan preparation, I believe OSSE needs to not only timely notify teachers, principals, and parent organizations of its own ideas for the plan and meet to solicit their views, but engage in serious, forthright, and comprehensive discussions with them to find common ground on key matters. Where common ground isn't reachable, OSSE decides.

2. Use SCAI as School Quality or Student Success Indicator

For school improvement purposes, a broad school climate indicator is the most valuable type of indicator to satisfy ESSA's accountability requirement that states adopt an "indicator of school quality or student success." Specifically, OSSE should select the School Climate Assessment Instrument (SCAI) from California State University, Los Angeles. Because of its unique analytic trait structure, highest correlation with student achievement, and measurement of vital practices for successful school turnarounds, SCAI is the most informative and useful climate indicator for improving low-achieving schools.[1]

3. Include SCAI Survey Results in State Reports

To satisfy the accountability requirement that the school quality or student success indicator be disaggregated for student subgroups, OSSE should report the SCAI student survey results for each DCPS school in its "Annual State Report Card." OSSE should also administer SCAI teacher surveys to get invaluable information about teaching and leadership not available from students, and should include the survey results in its annual report as information to "best provide" the public about each school's progress.[2]

Recommendations for DCPS:

1. Implement Comprehensive and Schoolwide Programs, With Common Elements

Substantially improving individual schools serving disadvantaged students is ESSA's principal strategy for achieving Title I's purpose: "provid[ing] all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps."

DCPS' top priority under its "Local Education Agency Plan" should be implementing ESSA's "comprehensive support" and "schoolwide" programs in every Title I school to which they apply as its chief means for improving learning for its disadvantaged students.

Overall, in implementing both federal programs, DCPS would need to move beyond putting in place system-wide policies and narrow, local programs, such as longer school days. Instead, DCPS would need to concentrate on doing what's necessary to create the five common elements, together and holistically, in each selected low-achieving school, given each school's unique strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. Further, DCPS would need to move from top-down, centralized control to consulting and partnering with stakeholders and their representatives in each school on that school's improvement plan content and implementation and to delegate broad authority to each turnaround school's principal.

2. Push OSSE to Use SCAI School Climate Indicator

DCPS should urge OSSE to adopt the SCAI school climate survey for students, teachers, and parents as its school quality indicator under Title I. This would be an invaluable tool for identifying each school's strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, it would begin the turnaround process by having stakeholders collectively realize certain specific expectations, beliefs, and practices that they need to change at their own school and guide them toward what to do differently.

3. Train Principals as Turnaround Leaders Using ESSA Grant

To maximize the possibility that DCPS could successfully transform low-achieving schools, it would need experienced principals with the knowledge and skills to lead these turnarounds. School leaders are the ones who particularly need to have the vision, gain buy-in, develop leadership teams, and guide the difficult multi-year process of changing assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors to turn around low-achieving schools. The United States has such principals, but they're far too few to meet the need.

Fortunately, Title II of ESSA authorized a grant program that could begin to meet this need. Section 2243 authorizes about $16 million a year, which may be used, among other authorized uses, for the creation of "school leader residency programs" to train and support "current principals" who could lead turnarounds in schools designated for comprehensive support. Such programs may include "cohort-based activities that build effective instructional and school leadership teams and develop a school culture, design, instructional program, and professional development program focused on improving student learning."

DCPS is eligible for such a grant by itself or in a consortium with other districts. A grant could last as long as seven years.DCPS should seek one.

Because establishing such a residency program to prepare turnaround leaders would be invaluable for DCPS and its low-income and minority students, DCPS should do it with, or without, a federal grant.

If DCPS did not establish such a program or, if it did establish it, during the time before a sufficient number of turnaround leaders had been trained (or recruited), it would need to provide intensive mentoring, support, and peer collaboration for the principals who were charged with leading turnarounds.

4. Expand Principals' Authority

For principals to effectively lead turnarounds, they need broad authority and discretion to lead the complex changes over about a five-year period. [3]

Districts need to enable turnaround principals to feel secure in their positions and to do everything the districts can—including providing supplemental staffing, funding, technical assistance, and other resources as necessary—to help the principals and their schools succeed.In this regard, it would not be viable for DCPS to restrict anyone intended to be a turnaround principal to a one-year contract. Contracts should be for at least five years.

5. Collaborate With Teachers

Having teachers' support and active participation in the changes the schools would like them to make is essential for turnarounds to succeed. The Washington Teachers Union (WTU) is the lawful representative of DCPS teachers. To promote D.C. teachers' support for any DCPS turnaround initiatives and to recognize ESSA's call for substantial state and local collaboration with stakeholders, DCPS should complete a new contract with WTU.

Next week, Ratner will conclude the series with his final thoughts on the policy and political decisions D.C. needs to make now to become a national model for improving low-achieving schools under ESSA.