December 21, 2017

USDOE: MN’s ESSA Plan Needs Work on School Quality & Equity

By Andrea Roethke

Is Minnesota doing enough to make sure low-income students and students of color have equitable access to effective teachers? Or that low-performing schools are improving? According to recent feedback from the U.S. Department of Education, the answer is “not quite” on both fronts.

Back in September, the Minnesota Department of Education submitted its Every Student Succeeds Act plan to the federal government, outlining how the state will measure school performance, support improvement, advance educator quality, and more. For the past several months, the plan has been under review, and on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education issued a formal letter asking for changes to strengthen Minnesota’s plan.

On the plus side, Minnesota received much less feedback than many states—a sign that the plan gets a lot right. Yet, USDOE also calls for several specific changes; some technical, and a few more substantive. Two of the areas USDOE flagged have significant implications for school quality and equity.

WHERE MN’S ESSA PLAN FALLS SHORT

First, the letter calls on MDE to be more clear about what happens after it’s identified a school for improvement. How will MDE objectively measure whether a struggling school has improved enough to be exited from state support? In EdAllies’ official public comment on the draft state plan, we flagged the lack of clear exit criteria as one of our top concerns, and MDE responded by making some positive changes to the plan. The federal letter flags that MDE did not go far enough to create clear exit criteria for all categories of schools. Exit criteria are important not only so schools know what to aim for, but also to ensure urgency around school improvement so that we are not leaving students behind. In addition to giving schools clear guidance on what to aim for, Minnesota could also strengthen the plan by clarifying what happens when a school does not improve.

Second, the letter flags that MDE’s plan falls short in its assessment of teacher effectiveness, including how it varies from school-to-school and the degree to which low-income students and students of color have equitable access to high-quality teachers. We know this issue matters. Teachers are the number one in-school factor driving student success, but too often the students most in need have access to the least effective teachers. While the plan does make recommendations for improving equitable access to high-quality teachers, it lacks a system for reporting on the current inequities and measuring change over time. By not providing public access to this information, communities, families, and policymakers have no way to understand gaps and be part of driving change.

While Minnesota has a system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, currently data is not shared between school districts and the state. State leaders often cite data privacy concerns as the reason for holding back data, but the fact is, many states from Illinois to Louisiana to New York have found ways to aggregate data in ways the preserve privacy while still allowing meaningful school-level transparency and analysis. Minnesota’s failure to find a way to strike this balance prevents us from truly understanding and addressing the equitable distribution of teachers. MDE should work with stakeholders, including legislators if need be, to find a workable solution.

NEXT STEPS

MDE has until Jan. 3 to reply to USDOE with changes to the plan. To share your thoughts on these issues, or others USDOE raised, email Commissioner Brenda Cassellius directly.