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Amid concerns being raised about the direction of the U.S. Department of Education and proposed federal funding cuts announced last month, we must remain resolute about strengthening education: improving the lowest-performing schools, growing a talented teaching force and better preparing students for college, career and life.
We know these issues can’t wait to be addressed — and we won’t stop prioritizing them in the face of any challenge.
The good news is that the core elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) should remain intact. While there is some fear about a new federal school voucher program or private school tax credits, the likelihood is this will not occur through a wholesale dismantling of ESSA.
If significant education budget cuts are in fact implemented, it will make the work of educators and school leaders more difficult.
Nonetheless, there should continue to be several key ways education leaders can leverage ESSA as a catalyst for change in their schools and districts.
1. Understand how the new law defines “evidence-based” and what that means for how you allocate resources in your school district.
We know a high-quality education makes a big difference for students, but we have become more divided than ever before about how to achieve it. In recent years, more research has become available about education initiatives, and we’ve learned quite a bit about the highest-leverage practices that make the most difference for students. Primed with this research, we can unite in evidence-based action to change the odds for students across the country.
The new education law offers some clear guidance on how to use evidence to make decisions, detailing what constitutes “strong,” “moderate” and “promising.” We advocate for using these definitions and basing decisions on evidence, no matter how regulations might change moving forward.
Given the stronger evidentiary language in the law, we anticipate a shift away from class-size reduction as a primary spending priority for Title II funding. In many instances, expenditures for smaller class sizes were not implemented in a manner that the research evidence suggests will lead to better outcomes, especially for low-income students.
2. Ask if your state-directed comprehensive interventions for the bottom 5% of Title I schools include job-embedded opportunities for all educators – new teachers, experienced teachers and school leaders – to continuously improve.
States continue to move forward with the expectation that the Title I funding stream will remain. But it’s important to ensure that some of that funding supports capacity-building strategies, including improving the quality of teaching in these schools, since it is a critical component in turning around low-performing schools.
3. Use Title II funding to put an evidence-based model of teacher induction and mentoring in place to improve teacher effectiveness and ensure more equitable access to talented and effective teachers.
The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging states and school districts to use Title II, Part A funds to establish and support high quality educator induction and mentoring programs that improve classroom instruction, increase student learning, and contribute to the retention of effective teachers and school leaders.
4. Use Title II funding to develop a talented and effective cadre of school leaders.
For the first time, the federal education law includes principals and other school leaders in all areas of professional development and growth. In the past, many of the authorized federal programs under Title II were largely aimed at or restricted to teachers. This is an opportunity to develop strong instructional leaders in schools, who act as central drivers of efforts to improve teaching and achieve growth for all students.
5. Use Title II funding to create an environment where both students and educators thrive.
The research is clear: teaching conditions matter for student learning. Teachers who work in more supportive environments become more effective over time. For the first time, districts can use Title II funding to conduct a teaching and learning conditions survey. Consider using these funds to understand educator perceptions of teaching and learning conditions, and use the results in your school improvement planning.
6. Refine your teacher evaluation system so it strengthens teaching.
The new federal education law does not require specific approaches to teacher evaluation. The move acknowledges we need to give all teachers more intensive support and more regular feedback than evaluation alone generally provides, so they can be most effective with students and remain committed to the profession. The new law encourages districts to establish non-evaluative methods to develop and support teachers, including teacher induction and instructional coaching.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll get answers to many burning questions about the role of the federal government in education, including what federal education funding levels might be, what role the U.S. Department of Education will play in overseeing and enforcing the new law, and what message educators will receive about the future of the profession through the words and actions of new leadership at the Education Department. What we can count on in the meantime is that the core elements of the new law will continue to drive the work of states, districts and schools in the years ahead.
It’s promising that ESSA gives district leaders greater flexibility to choose strategies for turning around low-performing schools, and has placed an increased emphasis on research to inform those decisions. If maximized, the new law offers the potential to bring greater balance to our schools, driving much needed equity in education and steadying the course of this country’s future.
We must stay focused on what’s best for students and teachers regardless of who’s in office. Our own goal at New Teacher Center – to end educational inequity by supporting teachers so they can change the odds for students – will remain steadfast regardless of who is in charge of our political system.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Liam Goldrick is the director of policy at New Teacher Center.