Mr. Joe Conaty
Delegated the Functions and Duties of the Deputy Secretary
Co-Chair, Agency Reform Taskforce
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20202
Dear Mr. Conaty:
On behalf of Chiefs for Change — a coalition of state education chiefs and district superintendents dedicated to excellence and equity for all students that lead education systems serving 5.3 million students, 350,000 teachers, and 10,000 schools — I write to provide our response to your request for input on ways the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can better meet the needs of America’s students, families, and educators and meet its mission of educational excellence and equity.
We believe ED plays an important role in protecting the rights — and advocating for the needs — of all of students, especially those who have been historically under-served. ED’s role can, and should, be exercised in various ways, including (1) regulations, (2) non-regulatory guidance, (3) peer review and monitoring, (4) technical assistance, and (5) transparent reporting, research, and communications.
Currently, our members are focused, in particular, on the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), putting forward innovative, bold, state-driven plans that include clear accountability systems for all schools and evidence-based interventions for those that are low-performing, new opportunities for teacher leadership and developing and supporting effective educators and principals, and a focus on enhancing equity and transparency at all levels. While we recognize that further regulations on ESSA are unlikely to be issued soon, we continue to believe that federal regulations can be a useful tool to provide clarity to states and districts in implementation of federal law and policy. For example, we applaud ED’s recent move to provide technical updates in regulation to the evidence definition in EDGAR, so that the evidence standards for federal discretionary grants are aligned with the evidence definition promulgated in ESSA. Similar technical updates to existing Title I regulations, such as those on Title I school-wide programs and equitable participation of students in private schools, could also be made to align with the new provisions of ESSA. In addition, outdated regulations, such as those pertaining to Highly Qualified Teachers, should be removed from the C.F.R.
In general, we believe all regulations and non-regulatory guidance should strike a careful and appropriate balance between, on the one hand, providing state and local leaders with the flexibility they need to implement ESSA in a manner aligned to state and local circumstances, needs, and priorities and, on the other, providing certain “guardrails” to ensure that the new law enables a better education for all students. In the absence of regulations regarding accountability and school improvement, state and LEA report cards, and consolidated state plans, we strongly encourage the Department to consider additional non-regulatory guidance to support state and district leaders in implementing ESSA, providing necessary clarifications and offering flexibility where needed.
For example, we appreciated the Department’s announcement that states could delay, for a year, the reporting of per-pupil expenditure data on state report cards, to provide additional flexibility. We would encourage ED to also update the non-regulatory guidance pertaining to state and LEA report cards (ESEA section 1111(h)) to reflect this delay, further clarify the statutory provisions pertaining to state and LEA report cards, and offer suggestions and best practices to states for meeting ESSA’s reporting requirements, especially those elements that are newly added in ESSA (like per-pupil expenditures). The non-regulatory guidance on state and LEA report cards issued in January is helpful, but still includes references to the repealed regulations — making it confusing for state and LEA staff to fully utilize. Updating this guidance to remove references to the repealed regulations would be helpful.
Similar non-regulatory guidance on state accountability systems in ESEA section 1111(c), school improvement requirements in ESEA section 1111(d), and school improvement funding in ESEA section 1003 and direct student services in ESEA section 1003A would be helpful. While states have gotten some feedback on these provisions through the peer review process, it would be beneficial for states and LEAs to have a single source of consistent information and guidance from the federal department, rather than piecing together this information across the individual state peer review feedback letters. Although many outside entities have produced helpful guidance documents and technical assistance for state leaders, none of these have the official imprimatur of the Department, and it is preferable for states to be able to get this information from a single source. In addition, certain requirements have caused particular confusion among states during the peer review process, such as the requirements for accountability indicators. Stand-alone, non-regulatory guidance on indicators would also be helpful for ED to provide to states given the number of questions on these provisions.
Beyond non-regulatory guidance on programs covered in state’s consolidated ESSA plans, we would appreciate ED’s consideration of providing guidance in other areas of interest to our members, especially new flexibilities provided by ESSA — such as the Weighted Student Funding pilot in ESEA Title I, Part E and the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority in ESEA Title I, Part B. States and LEAs need official guidance from ED, including timelines, application requirements, and other clarifying information, in order to determine whether to pursue these opportunities in ESSA and how to begin their applications.
As we’ve previously stated, we believe that states must meet the letter and spirit of this civil rights law, and ED’s peer review process is a critical step in this process. We appreciate the diligence and seriousness with which ED is approaching the peer review of ESSA consolidated plans, as well as ED’s openness to feedback on ways to improve this process for states — and hope this will continue through the second review window in September. We appreciate the new process of providing initial feedback and requesting clarifications through a phone call prior to receiving formal ED written feedback.
In addition, we would recommend providing more flexibility for states with regard to meeting timelines for re-submission of plans. While ED has 120 days to review consolidated state plans under ESSA, that clock should “pause” anytime the state is responding to feedback from the Department. Many of the requested changes take time to address fully, particularly when they require examination of data and analysis of any changes to the state’s accountability methodology and deliberate decision-making. In many cases, responding to these requests thoughtfully has required a longer window than requested by ED.
Finally, we appreciate the Department’s willingness to rethink how it conducts routine monitoring with SEAs, offering states the opportunity to complete the monitoring process via in-person visits to ED, rather than the typical process of desk or on-site monitoring. Greater opportunities for in-person interactions between ED and SEA staff can be beneficial to build stronger relationships and greater understanding of individual state challenges, needs, and contexts.
We believe ED could do a better job of streamlining and communicating resources that are available — as navigating the current TA offerings across the Department’s comprehensive centers, RELs, webinars, and other supports can be confusing. We recommend narrowing the range of supports and very clearly communicating what type of research, support, and assistance is available from each entity.
Transparent reporting, research, and communications
Finally, we believe ED plays a critical role in its efforts to produce research, reporting, and other communications. ED should continue to make education data publicly available online and enhance its data reporting systems. For example, the open data provided through the College Scorecard is one model ED could consider expanding in other areas (including K-12 public schools) to improve transparency and the availability of information on educational outcomes. We also believe the work of IES — including the What Works Clearinghouse — will be especially important under ESSA, given its emphasis on evidence-based decision-making. Ensuring states and LEAs have access to the latest evidence reviews and research on evidence-based interventions should be a priority at ED moving forward, both in terms of producing new research but also in terms of providing technical assistance to states and LEAs in accessing and using that research to inform policy implementation.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide this feedback for your consideration, and are happy to speak with you further about any of these recommendations.
COO, Chiefs for Change