The ESSA Mindset

One of the distinguishing features of No Child Left Behind, for better or worse, is that it expressed a particular and detailed vision for educational improvement guided by an explicit theory of action. High quality standards accompanied by assessments of reading and mathematics would focus the educational system on improving student performance in these areas. Disaggregation of data by subgroups and strict accountability provisions would ensure attention to and equitable treatment of students who did not meet standard. Public sanctions for failing to meet required ambitious improvement targets would apply additional pressure on schools to attend to the achievement of all students and to close the historical achievement gaps between groups of students.

By contrast, ESSA is the anti-vision. It explicitly eschews a comprehensive picture of or road map for educational reform and improvement, the responsibility for which it defers to the states and, by extension, local school districts. Reading and math are still important, but they are by no means the only possible indicators of success. And while attention still must be paid to the performance of all groups of students, the consequences of not demonstrating improvements across groups is unspecified except that the lowest performing schools must be identified and attended to.

The law is not based on a specific and detailed theory of action, or, perhaps more accurately, it is based on a theory that assumes that the devolution of authority to the states will result in the unleashing of pent-up creativity and capacity at the state and local levels that will result in the solution of intractable educational problems. The best solutions are always assumed to be local solutions, and are best developed individually and idiosyncratically by local educators. The law is as much about what educators don’t have to do as what they have to do.

The net effect is to shift the focus from developing generalizable, scalable solutions to working with individual states and districts to come up with accountability and assessment systems that work in each state’s policy system and political environment. Fifty individual states and nearly 15,000 school districts will make meaning out of ESSA, and their decisions, individually and collectively, will be what ESSA actually is when all is said and done.

This is what I refer to as the “ESSA mindset,” the notion that states, districts, and schools are empowered to improve education by generating local solutions but without benefit of guidance or frames of reference beyond attenuated versions of NCLB requirements. The US Department of Education (USED) is in the peculiar position of having to implement a law that proscribes most of the agency’s normal powers to compel implementation. On one hand, ESSA requires rules, regulations, and guidances to enable states to put it into practice. On the other hand, most every utterance in these areas from USED is subject to potential challenge from two opposite sides that sandwich the agency, Congress and the states. As a result, the chances that USED will provide clarity or even much clarification of a vision for ESSA are very slim. This task will fall upon states themselves and the many intermediary educational organizations that seek to provide assistance, technical and otherwise, to states and to USED.

The first task will be translation, how to interpret what ESSA actually permits and what it mandates. Many groups are moving on this front already, but this will be a protracted and very important process because this is when states and educators will form their mental models of ESSA. A mental model is simply a representation of a phenomenon that allows multiple people to agree what the phenomenon is and how it should be dealt with. When mental models are strong and shared, they become a shorthand for detailed discussions and explanations of what is meant by the model. No Child Left Behind was so explicit that it was not difficult for educators to develop a mental model that described its general implementation. That model was based on a compliance mindset. Follow the requirements. The fact that doing so might not lead to achievement of the law’s goals was lost to rule-based compliance.

This had the effect of creating cultures of implementation in education departments that were already doing compliance monitoring in numerous other areas for which federal funds were authorized. No Child Left Behind became just another mandate, albeit more far reaching and challenging to achieve. This was then communicated to school districts and to schools, which often expended nearly as much energy trying to figure out how to get around requirements as they did on how to genuinely improve education.

Now, education departments will be asked to be innovative and nimble after 15 years of following rules (and attempting to bend or avoid them). While the waiver process has provided a few states some practice at moving beyond the strict constraints of NCLB, most states do not have extensive experience designing new systems of accountability and assessment. Nor do most have the staff resources and time to do so. States will need access to models and solutions that they can then adapt and modify based on their unique circumstances.

The most likely scenario is that most states will move only tentatively away from NCLB-type accountability and assessment. The few that are planning more aggressive departures such as New Hampshire and California’s CORE districts, already have federal approval, negotiated in painstaking detail over an extended period of time via the waiver process.

States that now wish to do something different with assessment can apply to be one of the seven assessment pilot states where there is some specification about what they can do. For most states, though, it will be a laborious process of trial and error to adapt and extend their current accountability and assessment systems to accommodate deeper learning principles. It remains to be seen how much of a dance with USED this process will become, although peer review will guarantee at least some level of state-federal interaction around assessment systems.

The tendency of technical assistance providers and experts with interests in new methods of assessment will be to focus on the methods themselves and less on the context within which they are to be put to use. This would be a costly oversight at this point in the process. The challenge is going to be to match the assessment to the context to a greater degree, and to be ready to adapt assessment models and methods to a much greater degree than has been the case previously. Comparability across state lines is not as important, although the ability to judge students against standards remains paramount. What do new solutions look like that can compare the performance of groups and subgroups in reading and math and still promote deeper learning? Which parts of the system of assessments falls outside of federal accountability but still contributes important information to schools and teachers? How important is fidelity of implementation and scalability in this environment? Is it okay for solutions to be incompatible across state lines? What opportunities are presented by not having to fight the one-size-fits-all assessment philosophy of NCLB? Are educators ready for new methods and models? With the NCLB roadblock removed, will educators and reform advocates be able to shift the rhetoric from what’s wrong with standardized testing to how to develop systems of assessments that provide more information on a wider range of student skills and abilities?

What does it look like to provide leadership within the ESSA mental model? Do those seeking to provide leadership to states and districts even have a shared mental model of ESSA yet? What will it take to get the mental model in place? What are the steps that need to be taken concurrent with and subsequent to the development of the mental model? What important roles do NGOs play in providing leadership? How can foundations best leverage their limited resources to help operationalize the mental model in ways that lead to more comprehensive and multidimensional assessment and accountability systems? How can all of this be translated into implementation actions that guide and foster creativity contextualized to each state and to a wide range of districts? These questions and others must be answered to move along the road to supporting ESSA implementation in ways that lead to deeper learning for America’s school children.