ESSA: Navigating a Least Restrictive Policy Environment

July 13, 2017

By Dr. Sally B. I’Anson

At the heart of ESSA is the passing of the responsibility for education quality, equity, accessibility from the federal department of education to the state departments of education.  ESSA puts the control of funding and compliance much closer to the student.  ESSA also pivots the focus away from compliance reporting toward reporting that shows learning progress for every student.  ESSA also puts technology and data use at the forefront of education reform.  Most would agree that for these reasons, among others, ESSA is a transformative education policy.

NCLB based districts’ federal funding on the delivery of an extensive list of complicated, interconnected plans and reports.   For years, district IT departments worked long hours with tech vendors cobbling together disparate technology platforms in order produce the reports required by NCLB.  As a result, many districts now have complicated, customized, but inflexible, systems that are not designed for or agile enough to produce the type of data and reporting that ESSA expects.

I am suggesting that some, not all, of course, state departments of education may need help from experienced school leaders and education technology vendors to allow ESSA to be transformative.  In my interpretation, ESSA provides states with the “least restrictive” policy environment.  The shift from NCLB to ESSA is like the experience of moving students from a highly restrictive environment to a less or least restrictive environment. Students were unaccustomed to the new rules and culture in the least restrictive environment and often simply didn’t know what they were expected to do or not do.  They needed to learn the new processes and have access to role models that would show them what to do, and they benefitted from lots of examples demonstrating how they could be successful in their new environment.

Education technology has changed dramatically in the past 18 months.  Districts now have access to integrated platforms that are student-centric and designed to produce dramatic, easy to interpret data visualizations and analytics on individual student data in less than three clicks.  Selecting new technology to give districts the tools they need to advance the goals and opportunities that ESSA proclaims is an important long-term investment.  Partnering this new education technology with veteran educators will help state departments of education implement strategic plans aligned to ESSA’s goals and objectives.

At least half of the states have submitted their plan for how they will implement ESSA.  The other half are due in September. Let’s hope that these plans include partnerships among existing DOE and district, experienced and knowledgeable education leaders and technology partners to execute on the new opportunities provided by ESSA.

To learn more about ESSA, read the White Paper, ESSA Up Close: A guide to the practical impacts of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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