New York City, New York–Roughly two-dozen parents, administrators, and (mostly) teachers gathered in a Staten Island classroom on a Thursday in late March to have their voices heard. The purpose of the meeting was to gather public input on the forthcoming state Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan. What the ESSA planning meeting exposed, however, is the reality that education policy still feels like it comes from the top down from the grassroots’ perspective.

They didn’t like many of the choices set in front of them. How are educators to choose among options for a state accountability framework if their experience tells them the state should not have a muscular oversight role in classrooms to begin with?

Under ESSA, states are legally required to solicit input from local level stakeholders before putting together their compliance plans, or state ESSA plans. The local ESSA planning meeting provision was written into the law in response to a widespread sense of impotence over education policy felt among parents and teachers under the previous federal regulatory regime.

Despite the pronouncements from Washington heralding a massive devolution of educational decision-making power, the educators in Staten Island still feel mostly left out of the loop. As the state marches toward the September 18th deadline to file its accountability plan, the hope for a major overhaul in state educational priorities is slowly dissolving—at least according to the tone of the activist teachers’ discussions.

The Staten Island teachers are tired of seeing their students reduced to numbers and their work dissected by the blunt instrument of state-standardized assessments. While the city and state officials wanted to gather input on a specific set of policy questions, many of the teachers were more interested in expressing their displeasure with the fundamental premises being set forward.

“I love teaching, I can’t believe they pay me to do it,” said Roseanne Alkhatib, as she introduced herself during a breakout session at the ESSA planning meeting. Alkhatib is a veteran middle school math and foreign language teacher in a Staten Island school.

Alkhatib’s group was tasked with caucusing on wonky accountability measurement questions. For example, the educators gathered at the table were asked whether the state should set a single long-term achievement goal that applies equally to all students in all schools, or whether test-score expectations should vary based on a school’s baseline performance (i.e. setting lower, more realistic expectations for schools that service disadvantaged or historically marginalized students).

While Alkhatib and her fellow educators ended up agreeing that differentiated goals were the lesser of the two evils, they registered their frustration with the city officials in attendance whose role was to “facilitate” the conversations. Alkhatib was among those bemoaning the fact that schools and teachers are still measured by how well their students perform academically, rather than if they are producing good citizens.

She discussed her experiences working in schools with students from low-income families, explaining that she’s seen those students grow and improve, but those changes are rarely captured by their test results. “Fixed accountability doesn’t help anyone,” she said.

Patti Vitucci, a Staten Island Kindergarten teacher in the same breakout group as Alkhatib, expressed many of the same sentiments. She worried about the effects rigorous testing has on student morale.

“They need to feel success somehow,” she said of the students in her elementary school who have to sit for long exams that are rarely outfitted for their level of competence. Vitucci and the other educators in attendance called for adaptable testing models that measure student growth, rather than just seeing if they meet one-size-fits-all proficiency standards.

Though it’s harder to measure, the growth-oriented testing model has purchase among the broader community of education reform advocates as well. Proponents of growth measurements argue that it encourages schools to focus on demonstrating improvement among all students—from those at the top of the class to the bottom. Proficiency measurements arguably incentivize schools to focus more on those students who are either just below, or just above competency benchmarks (because under that kind of accountability system there is no upside for schools to focus on students who are already proficient, or those who have no hope of meeting the standards).

Nonetheless, like her colleagues, Vitucci disagreed with the basic premise that a school’s quality can be summed up in the accountability measures the state was proposing. She said that it’s bad enough that the state school system forces teachers to compare “child A with child B,” let alone entire schools or school districts.

The dynamic of dissatisfaction was repeated in the other breakout sessions across the public input meeting. When the whole group came back together to give feedback on the questionnaire prepared by the state, leaders from table after table expressed their unhappiness with the menu of options the state was giving them to choose from. The feedback given to the city officials—who were taking meticulous notes that they promised would be passed onto state decision-makers—was riddled with caveats and carefully worded stipulations about how the participants “could live with” the inclusion of a given policy point, but only on certain conditions.

It’s worth noting that New York City’s school system, with over one million students, is the largest school district in the country, in one of the country’s most populous states. The teachers in attendance, willing to go to a state ESSA planning meeting after school hours, were a self-selected bunch with a particular passion and eagerness to participate. So while it is possible that the views expressed in the Staten Island meeting are not reflective of the average sentiments among educators statewide, reports from other ESSA feedback sessions in other states tell stories of similar frictions.

A rebellion over a perceived lack of deference to stakeholder feedback, particularly regarding over-testing concerns, pushed Ohio’s state education department to postpone the submission of its ESSA plan. In Washington, D.C., a dissenting minority of education board officials publicly inveighed against their ESSA plan because they also thought the proposal was too close to an old-school No Child Left Behind-like accountability system.

“I thought it was wonderful to hear firsthand from people who work in the field,” said Christine Cea, a member of the New York State Education Department’s Board of Regents who was in attendance. Cea represents Staten Island’s schools on the board.

“You could feel the dedication, and the emphasis on the student,” she said. Cea sympathized with the teachers’ concerns about over-testing and said she is part of a task force that is looking at ways to unlock additional funds for innovative assessment approaches, particularly for students with special needs.

Cea was also positive on the state education commissioner’s commitment to meaningful outreach to stakeholders. Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has announced her intention to attend every public input meeting held in the state over the summer once the draft ESSA plan is finalized. Those meetings will be the last round of in-person public feedback gathering before the plan goes to Governor Cuomo for a thirty day review, and then gets passed to Washington.

Cea acknowledged the difficulty of crafting a plan that would satisfy everyone in the state while also meeting federal statutory requirements. Nevertheless, she promised that the Board of Regents would “take into consideration what we’ve heard”

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want to hear what people thought,” she said.

The difficulty from a top-level state official’s perspective stems from the need to strategically distribute a finite pool of resources. While there is real grassroots opposition to making those decisions based on test scores, it’s unclear if state commissioners have any viable alternatives to figure out what’s working in which school districts.

Furthermore, many test are mandated by state laws or district procedures, so even if the state officials wanted to, it’s unlikely they would be able to make many of the systemic changes the teachers in attendance were calling for through the state ESSA plan.

One can expect these spirited discussions to continue in hundreds of similar ESSA planning meetings across the country as more and more states continue to engage with stakeholders and as ESSA implementation ramps up to its Fall 2017 launch.

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