Breakout session recap from the 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy.
In 1965, the federal government passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which disbursed federal funds and resources to the state and district levels.
Thirty-six years later, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) marked a new era in federal education policy, establishing accountability and proficiency goals for schools nationwide. Waiting for Congress to reform the federal education law, the Obama administration launched the Race to the Top competition and later issued conditional waivers to the hardline proficiency mandates of NCLB. Elected officials are retracting from the NCLB playbook and reconsidering everything from accountability systems, data transparency, interventions for those students who need the most help, school turnaround and redesign, and teacher accountability.
State governments and districts are grappling with the latest federal revamp: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). To determine what the new policy means for donors, Katherine Haley, the Roundtable’s K-12 senior director, invited Stefanie Sanford of the College Board, Claire Voorhees of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera to talk it out.
Stefanie Sanford kicked things off by talking about the testing backlash that occurred under NCLB, and how stakeholders lost their way in communicating the true objectives of assessments and accountability.
“Through this technical complexity and proliferation of testing, [we] sort of lost the center of what we were doing and I think we lost the public,” she said. “I think ESSA gives us the opportunity to simplify and I want to make the case for doing that.”
Voorhees claimed there is a specific role philanthropy can play in turning around failing institutions once they’re identified, whether by scaling effective school models or recruiting talented educators and operators. Advocacy investment is also critical so schools and communities take ownership over their own accountability systems and parents feel in the know about their child’s education.
“We’ve had kids stuck in failing schools for far too many years, and in some cases generations. We are starting to know and learn what works and so we need to get better at identifying what works, but there is room for improvement. We need to take those lessons and innovations to scale. And I think the philanthropic community has a big role there,” said Voorhees.
Skandera related the discussion on federal policy to a compelling story about Ariana, a twelve year-old New Mexico student who on the surface was getting good grades and excelling at her school, but was not on grade level and stuck in a perpetually underperforming school.
“I share that story because in ESSA, we will be talking a lot about systems. So in that story you should have heard we have new standards, new assessments. We adopted Common Core,” said Skandera, adding New Mexico’s overhaul of school grading and report cards. “So I say that with school grading, what are the opportunities and what should we be thinking about?”
Among the primary takeaways for donors when thinking about ESSA:
- Translate success: Information should be straightforward, not in jargon and inaccessible spreadsheets on state databases, so that both schools and parents know what’s happening in classrooms.
- Peer-to-peer professional development.
- Strong school leadership: Look for leaders who want to improve the system and invest in them.
- Invest in states with a strong appetite for reform and legislative change that can withstand political turnover and headwinds.