States Enter the ESSA Era: Five strategies for success

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 This blog post is a guest post written by Marisa Goldstein, The Aspen Institute Education & Society Program

With ESSA going into full effect during the 2017-18 school year, states have a prime opportunity to consider their role in and vision for education policy.

In 2015, the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program asked nearly 100 state legislative leaders about their responsibilities and challenges on education policy. Based on what we heard, we offer five strategies for policymakers in the ESSA era:

  1. Clarify your role. You want to do the right thing – both for students and for taxpayers – even if you’re not always sure about the most effective approaches. Start by considering the role of public education—and what that role means for the legislature. Engage in discussions with teachers, parents and students about the purpose of education before laying out policies. With a clearly articulated vision, it’s easier for state leaders to define the role of state policy, which will also clarify which responsibilities are retained by local leaders. To help frame conversations with state education leaders on what state policy should and should not take on, use the Aspen Institute’s Roles and Responsibilities of the State Education Agency.
  2. Learn from successes – and uncover what helped make them work. Engage your colleagues in systems that have successfully tackled problems. But know that what worked in one state may not necessarily work everywhere; it’s critical to understand the context and what adjustments might be needed. Tap into resources like the National Conference of State Legislatures’ and Education Commission of the States’ Legislative Education Staff Network or Education Commission of the States’ policy support to learn from peers and experts.
  3. Get into the field. One powerful experience for the legislators was seeing real assessment items from the new PARCC and Smarter Balanced But to see teaching and learning in action, nothing compares to visiting schools. Teachers are eager to share their practice with policymakers, so contact an educator to see how policy plays out in the field. Connecting with teachers can also help build your network of practitioners to consult about proposed policies and progress on implementation.
  4. Know your theory of action and how policy success will be measured. It’s critical to understand how a proposed policy will work, who will be affected, and how success will be measured, but it can be difficult to weigh these questions during the grueling pace of the legislative calendar. The State Education Policy Checklist, co-developed and vetted by state policymakers, is a useful tool to help clarify these considerations.
  5. Allow time for implementation – but know when to intervene and why. Everyone wants to see a quick payoff for students, but it takes time to see real improvements in student learning. While the process shouldn’t be rushed, it’s critical to adjust course if the policy isn’t working. By gathering leading indicators, establishing feedback loops with practitioners, and committing to continuous improvement, you can help provide oversight and know when to intervene.With the passage of ESSA and legislative sessions underway, 2016 is already shaping up to be a big year for state education policy. With a clear and deliberate approach, you can help redefine the role of states and set the course for years to come.

With the passage of ESSA and legislative sessions underway, 2016 is already shaping up to be a big year for state education policy. With a clear and deliberate approach, you can help redefine the role of states and set the course for years to come.

To learn more about the Aspen Institute’s state education policy work and find resources to support policymakers and others, visit: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/education-society.  

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