Local ESSA Implementation: How Engagement for Equity Will Help

Sophie Green | Program Director, Partners for Each and Every Child

State plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) have nearly all been approved and state leaders are now working to package and distribute information about the decisions they made to their constituents. The onus of ESSA implementation is now largely in the hands of local leaders: district and school administrators and educators, as well as a complex system of government agencies, non-profit organizations, for-profit companies, and community leaders.

The Good News

My team and I reviewed state ESSA plans this year with an eye toward how effectively states engaged with community stakeholders during the development of their plans. While many of the plans I personally reviewed did not fully rise to the opportunity to be deeply innovative and attentive to issues of equity, their development still represents a process that required a lot of work and effort.

Some states revamped or developed entirely new systems for evaluating and supporting schools; others outlined new programs to address the needs of English learners, students with disabilities, low-income students, and others; and some made plans to collect and report new statewide data to better understand their schools and students.

What We Face

With these efforts in mind, the next phase of ESSA implementation — a task set on the shoulders of tens of thousands of regional offices, districts, charter programs, and schools — has the potential to be overwhelming.

While most states took over a year and half to do their own planning, to varying levels of completion and with little to no oversight, districts are expected to do their own planning in 3 to 12 months. In many cases, state and federal budget processes are sufficiently misaligned that districts are expected to apply for funds in June of this year based on data that may not yet be available until next year to support school improvement programming that they may not have been notified by the state that they will need.

Even more daunting, ESSA’s new implications for local leaders are only one slice of the educational pie. School leaders must be responsive to: federal laws, guidance, and policy; state education laws; oversight and guidance from state, regional, and district offices of education; state and local school boards; family and community input, and emerging data and evidence from the research community about what works for students.

Engagement is Key

The specific components of ESSA state plans are only one part of a complex system of expectations and accountability. While there is a need for more and better resources to help schools and districts fulfill these expectations, there are also compelling opportunities for local leaders within ESSA:

What Can We Do?

As the focus of ESSA implementation moves from the nation’s capital to state agencies to our schools, there are a few key conversations that local leaders and their communities will want to join:

  • Assessing the needs of your community: what information do you want to know about your students, staff, families, and community?

  • School improvement planning: what programs do you want your school to start or grow or conclude?

  • Budgeting Processes: have funds been allocated in a way that supports local priorities?

  • Partnership: what organizations, including grant-makers and peer districts/schools, might benefit your school through formal or informal partnership?

  • Engagement: how and when are students, families, teachers, staff, and other community members a part of leadership on all of the above elements?

Partners for Each and Every Child (a project of the Opportunity Institute) and the Council of Chief State School Officers — with the support of Education First and input from more than 40 national organizations and local leaders — released Meaningful Local Engagement Under ESSA: A Handbook for LEA and School Leaders (Issue 1) in 2017, the first of what is now a 2-part series of resources for local leaders.

We have just released our second in this series — Meaningful Local Engagement Under ESSA - Issue 2: A Handbook for Local Leaders on School Improvement.

This new resource offers local leaders more detail about different school improvement strategies, as well as ways to collaborate more closely with community stakeholders to better assess need and align resources with chosen priorities.

Help Your Leaders Succeed

Every one of our 74 million students requires that our complex systems of education (not to mention housing, justice, and health) meet their needs. It is our collective responsibility to make up the difference when those systems fall short.

As members of a shared community, we need to push our leaders — at all levels of government — to demonstrate shared support, involvement, and responsibility for all of our children. It is vital that local leaders open the doors to their communities to share the privilege of decision-making. And it is vital that community members understand that our collective commitment to involvement in school success is not just helpful; it is necessary for the success and health of all our children.