Out is the old federal education policy, No Child Left Behind, which ushered in the controversial Common Core, made schools more accountable for student performance, placed a bigger emphasis on testing and sparked a widespread opt-out movement.
In is the new policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which still mandates high standards and accountability, but is supposed to give states more flexibility to decide how best to rate schools and fix those struggling the most. That’s a big shift from the tight control the federal government exerted over public education for more than a decade.
How this new federal legislation trickles down to classrooms from Buffalo to Hamburg to Williamsville, remains to be seen – particularly with the Trump administration now in charge. And will the changes be enough to mollify critics? That remains to be seen.
The State Education Department and Board of Regents are working with the federal government and a broad spectrum of stakeholders to figure out what changes are in store for New York. Public meetings already have happened with a full slate scheduled at regional sites across the state during March, including ones in Buffalo on Thursday as well as in West Seneca, Angola, Medina and in the Southern Tier. A draft plan is scheduled to be out in May with a final version due to the U.S. Department of Education by September.
Here’s a primer, based on what is known so far.
Q: Will this mean the end of Common Core?
A: No, not necessarily. States do not have to stick with Common Core – the set of national standards that establishes what students should learn in each grade – but states still must provide assurances they’ve adopted challenging academic standards in math, English language arts (ELA) and science.
Many suspect the eventual outcome in New York will be a revised version of Common Core that’s rebranded under a different name. The State Education Department, in fact, already has proposed making changes to more than half the Common Core learning standards for math and ELA.
Q: Will there still be standardized testing?
A: Yes, students still will be tested in math and ELA in grades three through eight, as well as once in high school. For science, students must be tested once in elementary, middle and high school.
Q: What about the complaint that there’s too much reliance on testing?
A: The new law addresses that. Academic measures, like test scores and graduation rates, will still weigh heavily in whatever system states create to hold schools accountable. The new guidelines, however, require that at least one other measure be included in the mix, such as school safety, attendance, suspensions – or whatever else is deemed important.
"We want to go beyond measures of just test scores," said Chris Cerrone, co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, a grassroots parent group critical of "excessive" testing and the Common Core standards. "What electives are offered? What are the class sizes? Are schools offering recess every day? Those are just some of the things that we’re looking at. Those are other ways to measure school quality, as well."
Q: What specific measures will New York use?
A: That’s part of the discussion.
"One measure is not enough and multiple measures, depending on how many, can be very complicated to understand," said David O’Rourke, superintendent of Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. "Policymakers are grappling with how to get the balance right."
"One concern is we end up underemphasizing academics," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit advocacy group that’s pro-Common Core. "That’s a really important balance for the state to strike."
Q: Does the new policy address low-performing schools?
A: Yes. In fact, low-performing schools would have some of the most flexibility.
States are still required to identify the bottom 5 percent of schools, as well as high schools where the graduation rate is less than 67 percent. The difference is there’s much more leeway for states and local school districts to come up with their own intervention strategies.
Q: How about teacher evaluations? Will they still be tied to student test scores?
A. The new federal policy no longer requires that test scores be a component of teacher evaluations. Again, that will be for the states to decide.
New York State’s policy has been to use test scores in evaluating teachers, but the Board of Regents in 2015 voted to put a four-year moratorium on their use.
Q: When will we start to see changes?
A: The transition is underway, but most provisions of the new law won’t take place until the 2017-18 school year. Some of the accountability components won’t be added until 2018-19 – or later.
Q: How will the Trump administration react to the policy?
A: That’s a good question. The new policy is federal law, but there’s some room for interpretation by the U.S. secretary of education, so there’s some uncertainty among policymakers over how this could play out under Trump, who supports school choice and vouchers.
"The law is the law," Rosenblum said. "That said, there’s a lot that the Department of Education has to do in order for this to work."
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sent a letter to states in February telling them to proceed with the scheduled timeline for submitting their plans.
"One of my main priorities as secretary is to ensure the states and local school districts have clarity during the early implementation of the law," she said.