September 21, 2017

Minnesota’s ESSA Plan: What Changed, What Didn’t, and What Still Can

By Andrea Roethke

This week, after a year and a half of planning, the Minnesota Department of Education submitted our state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to the federal government for review. If approved, this plan will be the roadmap for measuring how schools across Minnesota are doing, where they need more support, and much more.

After many stakeholders shared feedback on the draft plan during the public comment period in August, MDE made some positive changes. However, concerning elements—and, importantly, opportunities to address them—remain.


MDE staff took some of the feedback they heard during the comment period to heart. In particular, they made a few changes that will help ensure we’re not letting struggling schools—and the students they serve—fall through the cracks.

  • School Identification. One of our concerns was that MDE would overlook schools with very low performance and very low growth for support if their attendance rates were just a little higher than their peers. MDE changed the final version of the plan to address this loophole, at least for Title I schools. While they won’t receive the same level of intensive support as schools struggling across all indicators, if a Title I school is among the state’s worst performers on proficiency, growth and/or graduation, MDE will now identify them for support.
  • Exit Criteria. Another significant concern was that, to be exited from support, schools did not have to demonstrate meaningful improvement. MDE made a series of changes requiring schools to meaningfully move the needle, particularly on proficiency, before MDE exits them from support.

The revised plan also includes a commitment to exploring how MDE can make better use of in-school suspension data, and adds clarity around what additional interventions might look like for schools that do not improve. MDE wrote a memo outlining the full list of changes, which you can read here.


Our biggest lingering concern in the ESSA plan—which we shared in our public comment—is around MDE’s decision to evaluate schools with a confusing “funnel” system that fails to shed light on the performance of each school in the state. While this funnel system may be a done deal, the good news is that, because MDE still has some key decisions to make, there’s still room to influence and strengthen certain elements of the accountability system. This is especially true when it comes to transparency and school performance—big elements that the state’s ESSA plan didn’t fully address.

  • Public Transparency. In the coming year, MDE plans to develop a public data dashboard that will present all the metrics that feed into school accountability (and more). We will advocate strongly for the needs of parents and community members to drive this dashboard’s design. Can families quickly understand how their school is performing, easily navigate more detailed data, and get a sense of how one school compares to the next? We hope to see these kinds of questions front and center, and for MDE solicit family and community feedback to answer them.
  • Identifying High-Performers. Since the funnel system only identifies schools at the bottom, MDE still needs to create a new system for identifying the state’s high-performing schools. This is another important area that we’ll keep watching, as we believe that identifying changing-the-odds schools is absolutely critical; learning from these schools what’s working can help inform and improve practices across the state.
  • Other Metrics of Performance. MDE will also be working to build out additional indicators for measuring school performance, including whether a school offers a well-rounded education, and whether they are supporting students to achieve college and career readiness. We’ll be watching for these metrics to be grounded in both equitable access and outcomes.

As with everything in policy, the state’s ESSA plan will ultimately come down to implementation. Will the strong elements and positive changes be implemented with fidelity? Will MDE seek—and incorporate—family and community input on the lingering areas that still need to be finalized? In the coming weeks, months, and years, we’ll continue to monitor the state’s ESSA plan roll-out and keep you updated, always with an eye toward whether our school accountability system is truly driving improvement and more equitable outcomes for students.

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