AURORA, Colo. – The Colorado Education Association led a gathering of more than 230 educators Friday, June 17, exploring how to give our students the schools they deserve through state implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. They discussed the intersection of school accountability, standardized assessments, educator evaluations, professional learning and funding at the new crossroads provided by ESSA, the new federal education law signed in December.
“We are here today to envision what public education in Colorado might look like in the future, and to strategize on how to improve our state plan so we improve educational opportunities for our students,” said CEA Executive Director Brad Bartels in opening comments to a group filling the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center to max capacity.
The ESSA Summit brought district teams together from across Colorado that included CEA-member teachers and school support staff, administrative members of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) and school board members of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). The Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and Colorado Rural Schools Alliance were crucial partners in successfully convening the summit.
“The people who should be close to the conversation, who should be at the center of the circle for ESSA, are those people doing the work in schools and districts. And those are the people who are here today,” said Bruce Caughey, CASE’s executive director.
The summit began with a detailed ESSA overview from Augustus Mays, the director of government relations for WestEd, a San Francisco nonpartisan, nonprofit agency focused on education research, development and service. “The Every Student Succeeds Act provides a tremendous opportunity for the State of Colorado to rethink and refine your education system. I see this meeting as a first step in envisioning what Colorado wants to do around standards, around funding, around your school improvement system that you have in place, map out what that is going to look like and design it in a way that is meaningful to Coloradans and the students you serve,” said Mays.
Discussion panels and group conversations then led participants to describe their goals for students under ESSA. Reimagining accountability in fresh ways was at the top of the priority list for many in the room. “I’ve heard a lot about moving away from a punitive system and more into a system of support that doesn’t punish districts, teachers and students,” said CEA Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert, part of a reporting group who talked through recommendations at the end of the day. “We need to use our collective voice to give feedback in the rule-making process, creating a system of supports versus remaining in this negative, punitive system of consequences.”
Standardized testing was another hot topic for discussion, both in looking for test reductions in ESSA and in dealing with the federal requirement for 95% student participation in state assessments, a carry-over in ESSA from the previous No Child Left Behind education law. “We can't continue to penalize our schools, our districts and our teachers for an informed choice a parent is making to opt their children out,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman in a discussion panel.
Group consensus favored reviewing current assessments to better define their purpose in improving educational outcomes for students, perhaps using some formative and interim assessments to meet state requirements. The majority wanted to see more local control in the educator evaluation system, letting districts decide the extent to use test scores and other classroom data to determine the effectiveness of a teacher or principal (the state currently mandates ‘student growth’ as 50% of the evaluation criteria) and relaxing the annual evaluation requirement for educators with top ratings. Many participants also advocated against the current one-size-fits-all accountability system that doesn’t account for differences in educating children in small, rural districts, and that continues to label schools as ‘failing’ even when students are making significant progress.
Many recommendations appeared counter to state education reforms already passed, but Dallman cautioned her fellow education leaders against being discouraged by current laws, rules and regulations that would seemingly limit ESSA opportunities. “I want to encourage you to think outside that box as you meaningfully consult with others on ESSA. We are going to move forward and push on changes to state legislation and to state board rules and regulations. We've already lost if we can't think outside those limitations to what we know will absolutely benefit our students and help school staff feel more supported.”
A distinguished group of summit guests listened in throughout the day to the dialogue, including Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and members of the Colorado Legislature and State Board of Education. The Colorado Department of Education had many staff members in attendance to hear the ESSA discussions. “CDE are listeners today,” said Interim Commissioner Dr. Katy Anthes during her remarks to the group. “We have a lot of different ways you can engage and give us feedback. We are staffing the writing of the (state’s ESSA) plan, but we are staffing you to help us.”
CEA’s Bartels concluded the summit served as the ‘vision day’ to help the CDE understand what school districts and students need under ESSA to succeed. “The power that we have to affect our state plan is basically built into the groups that you’re sitting in. We are all going to have an opportunity to have input on exactly what this state plan looks like.”
Ken Delay, CASB’s executive director, said summit input will be very helpful in developing joint positions with the other associations on ESSA rules and regulations to take up with the State Board and in the General Assembly when legislators take up ESSA implementation in January. “If you haven’t been there, you can’t appreciate how much power there is in the Colorado Legislature when CASE, CEA and CASB all show up and say the same thing. It’s a big deal.”
CASE’s Caughey agreed. “If we don’t say the same thing in deciding the direction we want to go, who decides? So let’s decide where we want to go. Let’s be clear and let’s be resolute in terms of the things that really matter. Let’s find those four or five things we want and make sure when the political machine gets rolling again, that we’re on the same page and we make the differences we need to make for Colorado.”
States must submit their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education between March and July, 2017, with the law going into effect for the 2017-18 school year. Public ESSA resources pages are available on the websites of the National Education Association and the Colorado Department of Education.