With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), secondary school principals once again face challenges in complying with major educational reform legislation with the hope that every student will, indeed, succeed. For this initial roundtable on ESSA, which deals with the consultation process, we convened a group of experts including Peyton Chapman, principal of Lincoln High School in Portland, OR; Richard Long, executive director of the Learning First Alliance in Alexandria, VA; and Jessah Walker, senior federal relations associate with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D.C. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: What is ESSA’s biggest impact on secondary school principals? 

Walker: With chief state school officers, the biggest impact of the new law is an opportunity for states and local districts to have more ownership over education systems in their states. But with greater authority also comes greater responsibility in making sure that we get this right for kids—making sure that we are really consulting with all stakeholders, making sure that we are setting a great vision for where we want our education systems to be in the next couple of years, and then determining how best to reach those goals. When we bring that to the principal level, especially around areas of school improvement, there’s going to be a lot more autonomy at the school and district levels in determining how to turn schools around. We’re working on ways to help educate and inform what turnaround models might look like and how to empower principals and district leaders in this new authority that they have under the law.

Long: The big changes are in the impact of accountability and its measurement and use. The idea of having greater local control on the “how” has an enormous impact on schools where they’re doing pretty well. They’re not going to have the same amount of prescriptive requirements as under No Child Left Behind [NCLB], which required them to do things that essentially were designed for schools that weren’t doing well. Now there’s more flexibility, more interaction, and more decisions to be made. At the same time, there’s less arbitrariness in the whole process. What we don’t know yet is what schools that are not consistently doing well will specifically have to do under state requirements.

Chapman: The most welcomed piece is getting away from a “failing school” [mindset] and the impact that has on a school culture, on students, and the community. It was really hard for failing schools to keep good principals or good teachers and have that continuity to build a program. Under NCLB in the early years, when you had to let everybody flee the failing school, it reduced enrollment, and programs were lost. You know, you lose a music program, and you can’t just get it back the next year. If enrollment’s down, then you don’t have enough kids to populate your chess team, or your model United Nations program, or your higher-level calculus classes. NCLB ended up being more of a race to the bottom. It created very hard conditions for students, teachers, and principals. Moving to a positive frame of the Every Student Succeeds Act will really impact culture. What I’m hoping is that there will be local autonomy—more autonomy with the state, the school districts, and ideally with the school communities themselves—to create unique school improvement plans or continuous improvement models. Each school community is slightly different, and what will work in one won’t necessarily work in another. It’s going to be hard for states and districts to move away from wanting control. It remains to be seen how much autonomy an individual principal will have.

Levin-Epstein: What are the essential provisions in the consultation process?

Long: There are several issues that have really slowed the aggressive progress that we’ve wanted to see since April 1965 when President Johnson signed the original statute. One is that education is a shared endeavor. Responsibilities overlap, and they’re not the same from one community to the next, one state to the next. As a result, when the federal government tries to do an assertive intervention, it comes out with a one-size-fits-all approach. This makes for really bad policy. So in the consultative process now with ESSA, there is the requirement for interaction. One of the challenges that we have is how to get a consistent understanding across this very isolated set of education leaders to be able to do a consultative process on things that are, by their very nature, very, very difficult.

Chapman: One of the positives I’ve seen is the requirement to seek input from a variety of stakeholders—teachers, principals, parents, partners. In our state, the Oregon Department of Education put out a call for applications for ESSA work groups in March. I know principals were invited. I serve on a state committee—COSA (the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators)—a secondary school principals executive committee. You tend to get a certain kind of principal who may respond [to participate in a committee], so it may not truly represent all principals and all kinds of schools. And then there’s the time factor. The invitation included four meetings, and there were four work groups: standards and assessments, accountability, educator effectiveness, and school and district improvement. Four meetings for a high school principal to be out of his or her building is a lot of time.

Walker: We’ve been working with states in thinking about stakeholder engagement, and we’ve collaborated with 15 national civil rights and education organizations on a resource—a stakeholder engagement guide—on how to develop a process within the state to foster relationships. We’re working with states, talking about not just holding a couple of meetings on the front end—that does not equal authentic engagement. We’re hoping to have more conversations at the community level, bringing state officials into schools, districts, community centers, and having those opportunities for face-to-face interactions.

We’re also trying to meet the needs of diverse communities-creating opportunities like web portals, where it’s not just the opportunity to post your comments on a website but really looking at being able to have a two-way conversation through websites, webinars, and different communication access points.

States also want to make sure they’re looking for communities that have been underrepresented in past conversations. In some cases, that means relying a lot on liaisons and ambassadors to those communities; we’re not going to be able to get direct feedback from every person who’s interested in having these conversations. That’s OK, provided we have authentic ambassadors to those communities who really do feel that they can speak for the needs of those parents, those teachers, those principals, those communities.

Chapman: The Oregon Department of Education did a good job of bringing everyone together for a first session and starting with their overall framework and vision, outlining some of their key priorities. They did a really good job identifying issues of equity—equitable access and equitable outcomes as a top priority-and defining what those meant. Of course, there were questions for a more complete definition, then refining that definition. But I think it set the tone that the ESSA process really couldn’t be about involving only principals in the biggest cities, in the highest-performing schools, or about privileged parents making the call. They really called for diverse voices and for everyone to go back and encourage more people to get involved, and to share the survey links. But equity was a top priority, made very clear right off the bat.

Guiding Principles for Principals

Long: The Learning First Alliance is working on a set of guiding principles as well, and almost everything that is being talked about is within the same scope. Part of what we’re trying to do is to make sure that the stakeholders who are named in the statute, who are represented by Learning First, have an awareness of how this process could unfold. People don’t really know how to form a new type of relationship. We’ve tended to be more hierarchical than almost any other field by way of having interactive approaches.

Levin-Epstein: What do you see as the role of secondary school principals in this?

Chapman: In our district, it really is the principal who should be guiding the Comprehensive Achievement Plan (as set forth by the Oregon Department of Education), which we call a Continuous Action Plan (CAP). Our CAP sets goals around student achievement, teaching strategies, teacher effectiveness, and parent and stakeholder involvement. The expectation is that there would be representatives on your CAP planning team, from parents to students to teachers, to help make that work happen and to hold ourselves accountable for documenting the growth and the strategies that we’ve tried. We have to look at the test data. But as we’re talking about more authentic assessments, the hope is that that will change which data we’re looking at. We also want to broaden the data to really be able to see student growth. Yes, it’s really up to the principals; I think they’re the people who are being held accountable. And I think they’re the right people to lead the work. I don’t think they should necessarily have to sit and enter in all the updates to the CAP plan. I think you can assign that to vice principals or data counselors or even secretarial assistants. In terms of pulling everybody together, you’re the one that really has the relationships, probably, with a lot of the parents; and teachers and partners are also really important in that work. That’s been our experience.

Long: The consultation process is not just a state-to-local change. The statute is clear-it’s district-to-buildings and buildings-to-community.

Walker: States really rely on principals to help identify who else in the community needs to be a part of the conversation. Who are they working with at the local level? Which businesses, which nonprofits, which parents need to be at the table? Really, the local ground-level community that states don’t always have a finger on the pulse of, they’re relying a lot on principals to do a lot of that work in terms of the state-level consultations.

Chapman: Teacher leadership is the key to continuous improvement planning, because principals can’t be in every classroom. Teacher leadership-teacher-to-teacher-is really the key to the success in professional learning communities. It is crucial to have teacher leaders that can facilitate the conversation around best practices. Then, too, teachers are engaging parents through a parent night. So, it’s definitely not the principal that’s going to be able to do it all.

Legacy of No Child Left Behind

Levin-Epstein: Can you give a specific example of where this process will be beneficial for principals trying to make their schools better?

Chapman: The first one that comes to mind isn’t as organic as a continuous improvement process, but it’s the course I signed up for—the standards and assessments committee. Testing in my state is very controversial; we have parents and students who led opt-out movements when we adopted SBAC [Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium]. It’s become a really difficult issue around equity as well. I’m in a school where last year we had almost a 50 percent opt-out rate, but 90 percent of the students are headed for college and take ACTs, SATs, and IB tests, and they didn’t see the purpose in it. Meanwhile, a school who felt like they were in danger of risking Title or federal funds, they really felt all their students had to take SBAC tests.

As principals and colleagues, we want to see the data around how all students are doing. One of the best things that I think most people will agree with about No Child Left Behind is it really made us see every student by race and gender and ability. You can’t get that data through ACT or SAT scores as easily, and grades are more subjective. We’re really struggling with a balance between a strict policy around testing and adding days of standardized testing versus more authentic assessments that will help us get learning data for all kids. 

Walker: Principals are going to be absolutely key in working with their local stakeholders in identifying how best to approach school turnaround and identifying the local needs. They will need to really identify what the needs of the kids in that building are and how they can apply resources to make sure that we’re supporting those kids and helping them to thrive. We’re really optimistic about the type of turnaround we’re going to see when we allow building leaders to own a lot of that work.

Long: Let’s learn from our mistakes, let’s learn from what’s been successful. There’s now an awareness in the community that to be successful we’re going to have to really work hard at this for a couple of years, learn how to communicate much more effectively, and talk about what’s important. What do the kids need?

Chapman: I think that really shifting to continuous improvement and a growth mindset is going to take changing the way principals think and lead, even how they are hired. It’s a really different conversation when you’re talking about compliance and checklists and checking the box and doing what the state tells you (or what the feds tell you) to really having some space to be innovative and creative and collaborative. Those are different skill sets. So, you take a system that’s been deprived of resources and freedom and then suddenly open it up and say, “OK, be creative: What are your dreams for students? What are your community’s dreams?”

Sidebar: Making It Work

NASSP and the McKinsey Academy

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