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By Carma Henry

How is Florida addressing the needs of its lowest-performing schools under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? Last year, an independent non-profit education advocacy organization called the Collaborative for Student Success set out to find out. They did so by convening a group of education experts from around the country to take an in-depth look at the way 17 states were supporting and encouraging local school improvement efforts (which can be found at http://promisetopractice.org). The experts, both from the federal and district level, provided education officials, and state lawmakers with independent information on how each state could improve their plans, as well as their plans’ implementation. What they found, however, was not encouraging when it comes to Florida’s ESSA plan and implementation.

Florida’s ESSA Saga

In September 2018, Florida received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education for its plan for tracking student progress and measuring school performance, as required by federal law.

Florida was the last state in the nation to receive such approval, as the state and federal education officials wrangled for months over the state’s proposed plan. Originally, the state’s plan was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in September 2017, but failed to include specific waiver requests to portions of the law to which it objected. Federal officials sent it back to Florida’s Department of Education saying they couldn’t pick and choose what aspects of the law to follow, and that they needed to submit waivers for portions of the law to which they would like an exception. The state submitted a revised ESSA plan to federal officials in April 2018 to try and comply with federal officials’ requests and included a separate federal school rating system—one that factors in English-language performance—which would work alongside the state’s existing A-F grading methodology to target struggling schools.

ESSA, Equity, English-Language Learners, and Subgroups

The primary areas of divergence between Florida and federal education officials had to do with the state’s proposed approach to provisions regarding English-language learners and demographic-based sub-groups. But federal officials weren’t the only ones saying that Florida’s plan left a lot to be desired. Civil rights groups repeatedly raised the alarm as well, asking Secretary DeVos to reject Florida’s ESSA plan. In a November 2017 letter to DeVos, more than a dozen civil rights groups said they had “significant concerns” regarding the plan, which they believed failed “to serve the interests of marginalized students in the state” and “to comply with the requirements of the law.”

According to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg, who serves on the committee for LULAC Florida, an advocacy group serving all Hispanic nationality groups, Florida’s “current plan includes features that contradict common sense, expert opinion, popular will, and the intent of the ESSA. Contrary to the purposes of the ESSA, the Florida plan denies attention to struggling subgroups of students. Without attention, there can be no correction.”

A year later, with Florida now implementing a revised state accountability plan, the peer reviewers convened by the Collaborative had similar (and additional) concerns. While noting that “empowering local leaders is a core component of successful school turnaround,” the peer reviewers worried that “too much autonomy, without sufficient state supports, may not help the students and schools in most need.” This, the peer reviewers believe, reflects a “lack of commitment to closing achievement gaps by not addressing subgroup performance or English learner proficiency in the state’s accountability system,” meaning “districts and schools are less likely to focus on these populations as they plan and implement school improvement strategies.” The exact concern and fear raised by civil rights groups a year earlier.

The peer reviewers did applaud Florida for its “overall clear, student-focused vision around high standards, college and career readiness, and rigorous accountability and improvement,” and “clearly defined and easy-to-understand A-F grading system, which places a strong emphasis on academic growth and accelerated coursework.”

However, the peer re-viewers recommend that the state rework its accountability system to incorporate student subgroups and English-language learner proficiency. They also note that Florida’s use of dual accountability systems “raises issues with school improvement implementation as it can cause confusion about which schools are being identified and how to prioritize efforts.”

This article originally appeared in The Westside Gazette. 

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