By Ben Watsky and David DeSchryver (Columnist) Oct 18, 2017
Last week, the Department of Education (ED) published Secretary Betsy DeVos’s “proposed priorities and definitions” in the Federal Register. The document, which is open for public comment until mid-November, lays out her vision for American education, and the requirements and priorities that ED will apply to all competitive funding going forward.
It’s a document that will serve as a road map for state and local education policy for the next four years (at least), so it’s worth reading. But we know that not everyone has time to dig through a 10-page government funding update. So we’ve paired our review of the document with the latest editionof Whiteboard Advisor’s Education Insider report, which surveys Congressional and Administration staff, association leaders, and other decision-makers about what’s next for education policy.
Here are the top three policy updates with big implications for K-12 education entrepreneurs this fall.
1. Your Program Has to Address New ‘Evidence-Based’ Requirements
By now, you’ve likely heard that “evidence-based” programming is critical to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and maybe have read ED’s guidance here. At its simplest, a school or district may use School Improvement funds only for activities, strategies, and interventions that meet the law’s rigorous research and outcomes standards.
ED’s proposed priorities would extend the “evidence-based” requirement to also include competitive grants. All 11 of ED’s grant priorities are “designed to encourage grantees to utilize and build evidence of what works,” and the Department explicitly says that future grants will support approaches “supported by evidence of positive outcomes for students” and avoid “those that are inefficient, ineffective, or unproven.”
To be considered effective, a program must show a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on:
- strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;
- moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or
- promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias.
In our last survey, we asked Insiders whether states and districts would take this a step further and embed this new federal standard into their own program funding requirements. Eighty-two percent of respondents said “Yes,” and there is increasing evidence to back their position.
Arizona, for instance, recently revised its Move on When Reading grant to require districts to only use programs that can meet the federal standards. Districts like the Dysart Unified School District (Ariz.), Trenton (N.J.) and othershave also begun to orientate their procurement around the new standards. The evidence-based standards give states and districts new negotiating leverage, and it appears that they are going to use it.
2. Teacher Professional Development Funding Must Also Show the Evidence
The Trump Administration asked Congress to eliminate more than $2 billion in teacher professional development funding for fiscal year 2018, arguing that those funds are ineffective. They will likely make a similar argument the following year.
And yet Secretary DeVos’s proposed priorities do not follow suit. Rather, the importance of professional development is emphasized throughout the document. In particular, ED makes it clear that such support is necessary for the effective use of technology in the classroom, which can “help reduce the inequalities in learning and achievement and better prepare students for careers of tomorrow.”
Notwithstanding the politics of annual appropriations, this document clarifies that ED is interested in increasing the number of educators adequately prepared to deliver rigorous instruction in STEM fields—including computer science—through evidence-based training.
Despite Trump’s proposed cuts, Insiders also predict that Congress will continue the $2 billion annual investment in teacher training. Seventy-five percent of Insiders expect that ESSA Title II teacher professional development funding will remain about the same. No Insider predicted a total elimination of funding—or an increase.
The Senate appropriations committee recently voted to continue the investment, ignoring the President’s request and balancing out the House’s vote to eliminate the program. The conventional wisdom is with the Insiders, that the program will carry on for another year.
While it looks like districts and their vendors will not likely have to engage in a $2 billion belt-tightening exercise next year, that’s not an invitation to rest easy. The aforementioned “evidence-based” requirement and the House’s proposed elimination of the program make it clear that grantees and vendors better start start telling more compelling, evidence-based stories about the success of their programs—or face the possibility of elimination in future years.
3. State and Local Improvement Plans and Enforcement Will Matter Most
Back in the No Child Left Behind era, the federal government set clear lines for student academic proficiency, school accountability, and interventions for schools that weren’t hitting their marks. ESSA changes that by ushering in a new era of school accountability that grants discretion to state and local leaders, letting them identify their own unique challenges and design responsive school improvement models.
What this policy looks like in practice is beginning to emerge through the state plan approval process now underway. To date, ED has approved 16 of the 17 plans submitted in April; another 34 states submitted their plans in September (excluding those with hurricane exceptions).
This new era in accountability shifts the importance away from “what” a school is doing to be in compliance, and towards “how.” The letter of the law is less important than the outcomes (and the evidence of those outcomes), and this shift is evident throughout the Secretary’s “proposed priorities.” For example, the proposal frequently clarifies that ED will focus less on discrete funding streams and more on innovative problem-solving; increase its focus on outcomes while decreasing the emphasis on compliance; and reward the meeting of performance objectives over the manner of compliance. These themes come through loud and clear.
The Insiders enforce the point: half of them expect that there will be little federal enforcement of state accountability plans. As one respondent put it: “ED will …leave states alone for a while.”
This matters because it will increase the amount of homework for the sales and support teams. Local and regional teams will have to learn about the unique priorities, accountability models, and enforcement methods (and resulting changes in school purchasing behavior) of each state and district. National shortcuts, like NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress,” are a thing of the past, so plan on carving out more reading time every week.
Don’t be lulled into inattentive boredom by the regulatory documents and language. ED’s proposed priorities notice is worth your time. It provides the roadmap for federal and state policy discussions in the coming years, and there is plenty to distill. For this fall, though, the three issues identified above should be on the top of your list.