Celebrating a Win as the State Rolls Out Changes from ESSA

Some exciting changes are happening in the Louisiana Department of Education as the state begins to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  In particular, as a policy advocate for students of color, I am celebrating some key changes that will impact students of color and which parents should know about.  A number of New Orleans community advocates, including myself, have spent the last year and a half advocating for these changes.

This past week the Education Dept. (LDOE) launched a new online interactive tool. The new website, http://www.louisianaschools.com, is a result of ESSA, a federal education civil rights law which passed in the last months of Obama’s term.  ESSA called for greater data transparency as well as increased supports to historically disadvantaged schools. In many ways, the law sought to revive the original intent of education civil rights laws from the 1960s.  After its passage, LDOE sought input from a number of New Orleans advocacy groups in creating a draft plan to submit to the federal education department outlining how it would implement the law locally. Advocacy groups, including but not limited to the Urban League, Southern Poverty Law Center, Louisiana Federation for Children, Stand for Children, and my organization, Equity in All Places, pushed the department on a number of issues related to disadvantaged students. As a result, it has been called one of the strongest plans in the nation.

Now, we are beginning to see the payoff of those months of advocacy. In particular, we fought for accountability for schools with high discipline rates and/or schools who were not properly serving certain groups of students, such as racial/ethnic groups, ESL, and students with disabilities. Now, using the online interactive tool, parents can view important information regarding the academic performance of each individual school specific to a “breakdown by student group” and “discipline and attendance.”

While the information itself is not new, what is new is that our advocacy organizations will no longer have to fight the department to receive the data, take months to sift through and analyze the data, and then work to make it accessible to parents. It is now directly accessible. Moreover, the website includes side-by-side comparisons of each school to the state and national average. For example, a parent can look at their child’s school’s attendance rates and discipline rates for Black or Hispanic students in particular and compare them to the state and national average. While the school’s overall attendance rate for all students might be fine, disparities will be more apparent.

Additionally, LDOE is using specific language to warn parents when a school is not serving particular groups of students by using labels. These labels were a point of lengthy discussion between advocacy groups and LDOE. We wanted to call attention to the challenges faced by certain groups of students, but we also recognized the need to ensure that the language did not blame the students.  If a school has a group of students who are underperforming or if the school has chronic issues with student behavior, the labels “urgent intervention needed” or “urgent intervention required” will now appear on a school report card. It will read “needed” on the school’s report card when the performance of one or more student groups is a “D” or “F” for one year.  It will read “required” when performance of one or more subgroups is an “F” for two consecutive years or the school’s out of school suspension rate is more than two times the national average for three consecutive years (greater than 5.2% for elementary/ middle schools, and greater than 20.2% for combination/high schools).

In our school choice system, it is important to be able to publicly identify struggling schools in order to incentivize change. Parents will be able to more clearly see if a school is right for their specific child and child’s needs. For example, a school may have an overall ‘A’ performance, but the label “urgent intervention required” for students with disabilities or in the area of discipline for Black students will help alert a parent to the possibility that a school might not be the right fit.  Additionally, “Comprehensive Intervention Required” will also be reserved for schools who:

  • Earned a D, F or equivalent rating for each of the past 3 consecutive school years
  • Are new schools and earned a “D, F, or equivalent rating for each of their first 2 years of operation
  • Earned a graduation rate less than 67 percent in the most recent school year
  • Labeled as “Urgent Intervention Required” for 3 consecutive years for the same subgroup or for excessive out of school suspension.

Most important to know is that there will be funding support directed at fixing these challenges available to the schools.

While I’m feeling quite hopeful about these changes and the direction LDOE is taking, I’m also cautious.  School administrators and districts are waging a quiet war on these changes. Ahead of October’s State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, the Advocate reported that “the issue dominated a meeting of the superintendent’s council…which followed weeks of private talks among state Superintendent of Education John White, local superintendents, BESE members, and civil rights groups.” The Advocate Editorial Board has also recently since weighed in. They acknowledged the district’s concerns the new report cards are making them look bad, which makes it harder to pass funding measures for education. But they also concluded that a “report card is not for the benefit of officials, but to provide an insight for parents and taxpayers into the quality of education.” Either way, I’m following the public discourse and am ready to step in to defend the new policies if necessary. Moreover, these changes are exciting, and I’m looking forward to not only watching but also continuing to participate in the process as the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented over the next couple of years.  

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