Opinion: As laws change we must focus on kids

In what seemed to take an entire century, the federal government has finally taken a bold step backward in attempting to control the educational policy in our nation’s schools. By signing the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law last week, the feds have made a move to address many of the issues in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that have been plaguing our schools for many years, and have handed back much of the oversight of our schools to state governments. It’s a big game-changer in the educational world, and it has some significant repercussions in how we assess how our schools are doing. 
To review, our nation has been under NCLB since 2001, when George W. Bush signed NCLB into law as a means to address the gross inequities in student outcomes and the achievement gaps that persist in education. NCLB’s overreliance on single tests as holistic outcome measures led to an incredibly myopic view of our schools and presented a deficit mindset that wreaked havoc across the country in places that really needed thoughtful engagement rather than overarching deconstruction. NCLB did bring a focus on all students, however, and this commitment needs to continue to be at the front of our local, state, and federal education policy.
So how is ESSA different? The biggest change states will see is more flexibility in designing their own assessments, making determinations about how to measure those assessments, and finally what to do with those schools that are not deemed satisfactory. I think we will see great variation across states in how assessments are developed and used, as there are currently significant conceptual and philosophical divides in how assessments should work and how many should be used in assessing the performance of our schools.
I had the opportunity to talk with a superintendent from Georgia recently, who shared some of the accountability requirements in his state and the unilateral nature of their assessments. There are many states that have held a one-pointed belief in the power of a single test to provide a clear, defensible evaluation of how schools are performing. Vermont, fortunately, is not one of them.
Our work in Vermont in the era of ESSA will be to develop a means by which we provide leadership, guidance, and direction to our schools from the Agency of Education. We know that Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe has spoken frequently about not distilling the worth of our schools down to a single data point. Our assessment of Vermont schools will include multiple measures to provide a clearer picture of where additional state resources are needed to improve educational systems that are underperforming. In ESSA, states provide both the parameters for evaluating schools as well as the interventions, which is work that Vermont has just recently begun to develop.
This is an opportunity for renewal, and we need to take it. As a state, we need to be absolutely committed to closing the achievement gap and redesigning our systems to make them work for all students. Our accountability system should reflect this by supporting schools in challenging the status quo and moving toward greater flexibility and personalization.
It’s challenging to move institutions towards change, and our accountability system should be designed to get us there. However, we must move forward with the realization that schools are tasked with the social, emotional, and educational wellbeing of our students, which makes measurement considerably complex.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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