Colorado teachers, administrators meet to provide more input into state ESSA plan

Colorado’s second statewide ESSA Summit took place January 17 at the Adams 12 Five Stars School District administration building in Thornton, bringing together about 220 educators to gather their insights, concerns and recommendations into Colorado’s state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A hallmark of the federal law is a requirement for educator and community feedback on how ESSA is implemented at the state level. Rebecca Holmes, president and CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), said Colorado’s teachers and district leaders appreciate having an enormous opportunity to help shape the state’s approach to ESSA. “Those of us who have worked most closely with students have often been on the receiving end of legislation that came from good intent but didn’t serve the needs of our students or schools. We haven’t always made sure that the voices of the folks closest to the work get to be part of policy creation. This summit is one tool for changing that and CEI is thrilled to help support this effort.”

The ‎ESSA Summit attracted district teams from across Colorado that included member teachers from the Colorado Education Association (CEA), administrative members of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) and school board members of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). Along with CEI and its Health and Wellness Initiative, The Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) and the Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) were crucial partners in convening the summit.

The summit featured remarks from Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who also attended the first ESSA Summit in June. She said ESSA is focusing and shifting responsibility for education back at the local level where it belongs, and thanked the educators for taking advantage of the law’s flexibility with a collaborative approach. “It is a great sign and vision of the law to allow for such a collaborative process. I’ve been impressed with how much time and energy you are putting in with all stakeholders, who come into this with different points of view, so that everyone hears the perspectives that each party has.”

After a detailed ESSA overview, district teams rotated through breakout sessions to work through key decision points on school accountability, student assessment, effective instruction, and school improvement. Summit organizers collected the voice of educators through online surveys that participants could fill out anytime they wanted to make an observation or offer feedback. Note takers also captured the table conversation of frequent small discussion groups. BOCES facilitated further interaction by streaming the event live for educators who couldn’t attend in person, capturing their comments through the same online surveys.

The inequality of school funding in Colorado and the differing level of resources available in districts of various sizes surfaced in many discussions. “If you have an eloquent writer, that shouldn’t penalize schools that don’t have an eloquent writer,” said Ben Lausten, curriculum specialist at Summit School District, during a discussion on competitive grants. “Funds shouldn’t be tied to another thing we have to go write, but tied to our unified improvement plan. Give us the check and we’ll show you in our UIP how we plan to use that money to help impact kids.”

“No school or district should have to compete for dollars that their students need in order to be successful. That’s a funding issue that needs to be addressed by the state,” echoed Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora Education Association, resulting in loud applause from the room.

Several staff members from the Colorado Department of Education attended the summit to listen to the ESSA discussions and gather input. CDE Commissioner Dr. Katy Anthes, another return guest from the first summit, reminded the group that the state’s ESSA plan needs to comply with Colorado’s own education laws. “This is an amazing opportunity to put everything on the table and discuss, just remember we work within a legislative framework that also needs to be taken into consideration,” said Anthes. “The feedback that you’re providing around accountability, assessment and all of the important pieces also need to be given to our state legislators if the state laws need to change as well.”

The summit ended with a panel discussion addressing the big topics of the day, and immediately revisited the balance between the new ESSA framework and Colorado’s older education laws. CEA President Kerrie Dallman was asked if ESSA could help dial down the intensity of the state’s accountability system to alleviate the pressure on overwhelmed teachers. “We’re limited by the state laws currently on the books, but if we have the drive and desire, and the legislature has the drive and desire, then we can make some of those adjustments to relieve accountability for accountability’s sake and focus on opportunity and equity pieces for our students. It’s time to have a big conversation about a vision for public education and what we want for our students in Colorado moving forward.”

ESSA was signed into law by President Obama in December 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, which educators had criticized for its federal top-down control and punitive measures of compliance. ESSA goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year.