The Magic of College and Career Ready Approaches for Greater Equity, and 20 Ways to Advance Them through ESSA
By Kathryn Young
I’ll never forget the first lessons I witnessed as a student teacher in a 4th grade classroom that, already in elementary school, embodied the notion of college and career ready preparation. The classroom had a mix of students of all abilities and backgrounds, including many students with disabilities and many who had just arrived in this country. These fourth graders were learning about geography, topography, and how to read maps – a set of lessons designed to help them master rigorous state and district standards. Desks were clustered in groups around the classroom — some at computers, some at art stations, some around maps, and some around writing materials – all different ways to engage with, learn, and apply geography concepts. Students who needed it received more individualized supports and instruction from the teacher, including in evidence-based peer interaction techniques and academic supports. As students learned the concepts, they also had to figure out how to collaborate, create, and write-up their projects together. There was no sitting at desks and memorizing geographic terms for a quiz – but, by the end of the unit, these students all demonstrated their deep knowledge of geography and map skills in a meaningful way. And that’s not all they knew. They had practiced working with each other, testing and communicating their ideas, peer editing, and problem-solving – doing the things people are expected to be able to do on the job and in life today.
This type of personalized classroom environment with students gaining a range of academic and non-academic college and career ready knowledge and skills, is only possible when policies and practices enable it for each and every student, including those who have been underserved traditional education systems. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an opportunity to make policy and practice shifts that do just that. Research shows that the knowledge and skills students need in college and careers include rigorous academic content knowledge, the ability to think critically and solve problems, the ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively, and the ability to direct one’s learning with a strong academic mindset. Helping each and every child master this set of knowledge and skills should be the “North Star” in states, districts, and schools, including for ESSA plans and implementation.
As states (this year), and then districts (next year), develop, implement, and continuously improve over time their plans under ESSA, the 20 questions below can help state and local agencies, legislators, board members, parents, advocates, and other partner and support organizations determine whether they are leveraging ESSA to the maximum extent possible towards college and career ready learning and equity. For example – does the state set a clear “North Star” of the full array of college and career ready knowledge and skills through rigorous standards, goals, and high quality assessments? Does the state have multiple accountability measures, data reporting, and deeper diagnostic review processes that surface fuller college and career ready knowledge and skills, informed by things like performance assessments and portfolios across many subject areas, school climate measures, and accelerated coursework? Do the state’s school improvement strategies and direct student services priorities foster, for each and every student, the full range of college and career readiness and opportunities for them to direct and personalize their own learning?
We have also developed a fuller guide and checklist that provide more context and examples of the 20 ideas in action in initial ESSA state plans and on the ground. While not every state or district will focus on each of these questions at the same time, they are meant to guide decision-making this year and across ESSA implementation, including states’ and districts’ ongoing learning and improvement efforts. The guide is also meant to connect states with examples of other states trying these strategies.
We are at an important moment in education reform for states, districts, and communities — and most importantly students and educators — between ESSA, the pressing need for students to succeed in college and careers in the new economy, and new understandings from the science of learning and development and other research about what it takes to improve teaching and learning and continuously improve over time. This is a time to think big about how we want our education system to look for each and every student to succeed, and what changes are needed to achieve that goal, now and over the next several years. Our students deserve our every effort to make the most of this opportunity. We hope these ideas are a part of the solution.
20 Questions for Advancing College and Career Readiness and Equity
- Vision: Does the state set a clear “North Star” across its ESSA plan and implementation strategies by defining college and career ready deeper learning outcomes the system must advance for all students including: rigorous academic content knowledge, the ability to think critically and solve problems, the ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively, and the ability to direct one’s learning with a strong academic mindset?
- Theory of Action: Does the state’s ESSA plan have a clear theories of action based on evidence that explain how its strategies in each section will advance college and career ready deeper learning outcomes, and particularly how it will close gaps in opportunity and achievement?
- Standards: Does the state establish and maintain challenging state academic standards that are rigorous and aligned with college and career ready expectations that reflect to the fullest extent the knowledge and skills necessary for success?
- Long-Term Goals: Has the state set ambitious but achievable long-term goals aligned to college and career ready attainment, with expectations for gap-closure, for academic achievement, graduation rates, and English language proficiency at a minimum – and for other key indicators such as “9th grade on-track”, or postsecondary enrollment and/or persistence without the need for remediation?
- Summative Assessment: Does the state have and maintain high-quality summative assessments that cover the full depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, and rigor needed for success in college and careers, with all appropriate accommodations and alternative assessments needed for students with disabilities and English learners? (This includes any locally-selected, nationally recognized summative high school assessments and may include assessments that are delivered in part through projects, portfolios, or extended-performance tasks.) Is the state taking steps to develop, pilot, and evaluate innovative, high-quality assessments – including competency-based and performance-based assessments – such as through the demonstration authority for innovative assessment pilots?
- High-quality System of Assessments: Is the state taking steps to build, and help districts build, a high-quality, balanced, and aligned system of assessments (including, for example, formative, interim, summative, and performance assessments) that can best support excellent teaching and college and career ready learning? Is the state planning to use assessment audits or other strategies to build and enhance system quality while also reducing burden?
- Accountability Indicators and Measures: Does the state’s accountability system include multiple measures that are aligned with college and career ready outcomes and reflect a range of knowledge, skills, opportunities, and conditions that are important to success, including measures of school quality and/or student success?
- Data Dashboards and Reporting: Does the state plan to use (and encourage districts to use) a high-quality data dashboard or other matrix to report on an array of timely, actionable, relevant data – including for accountability and school improvement – that can be used by all stakeholders to inform the improvement of schools, strategies, and systems?
- Deeper Diagnostic Review: Does the state have a system and capacity for deeper diagnostic review of data to inform continuous improvement in all schools and districts, with a particular focus on low-performing schools, districts, and subgroups?
- School Improvement Resources and Plans: Does the state have plans for a system to improve all schools, and particularly low-performing schools, including state levers such as model needs assessments, technical assistance to districts, funding criteria, performance management systems for school improvement plans, and continuous improvement strategies? Does the plan advance evidence-based elements for improving schools such as teacher and leader effectiveness strategies, strategies addressing the effects of adversity on students, accelerated learning opportunities, and teaching aligned to the full array of college and career ready knowledge and skills?
- Direct Student Services: Will the state leverage up to 3% of Title I funds for “direct student services” in ways that will support students in becoming college and career ready, such as accelerated and personalized learning opportunities, rigorous career and technical education, and student academic and non-academic supports?
- Teacher and Leader Preparation: Has the state engaged educator and leader preparation programs and other partners and will it leverage Title II funds to align educator and leader preparation programs and/or certification and licensure with expectations that lead to the full range of college and career ready outcomes among all students?
- Systems of Professional Development: Is the state leveraging Title II funds to develop school-level learning systems that align to ESSA’s new definition of professional development? Do they particularly promote continuous improvement for teachers and leaders to improve their practice and further advance college and career ready student outcomes?
- School Leadership: Has the state expressly focused on improving the quality of school leaders in ways that promote deeper learning, and improving access to high-quality school leaders across districts, particularly for low-performing schools, such as through use of the 3% Title II set aside or other Title II activities?
- Student Supports and Academic Enrichment: Will the state target its Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants towards strategies that best advance college and career ready deeper learning and equity? For example, will the state use these funds to provide equitable access to a rigorous well-rounded education, student-centered learning experiences leading to mastery of deeper learning knowledge and skills, and academic and non-academic supports that meet students’ unique needs?
- High-Quality Early Learning: Has the state identified strategies throughout the ESSA plan and implementation to improve access to high-quality early learning as part of an integrated, equitable continuum of education towards college and career success? Does the state leverage strategies and resources to accomplish this such as professional development, support to programs, aligned standards, data sharing, school improvement, and a focus on transition?
- Stakeholder Engagement: Does the state have and maintain robust systems of stakeholder engagement in place (including ongoing “grassroots” engagement and structures for regular “grasstops” engagement embedded in state implementation) that inform state decisions and also foster public understanding of and support for college and career ready strategies and equity as part of ESSA?
- State Continuous Improvement Processes Based on Evidence: Has the state established clear systems, processes, and capacity for ongoing evaluation, review, and continuous improvement across all parts of its plan, based on data and evidence?
- Local Plans: Does the state have a state-to-local strategy that advances the dual goals of college and career ready outcomes and equity at the district level? For example, do the state’s plans for designing, reviewing, approving, and monitoring local educational agencies’ ESSA plans and providing differentiated technical assistance to LEAs create a clear through-line that advances deeper learning at the state and local level?
- Innovation Zones and Waivers: Has the state considered establishing innovation zones across ready districts that accelerate development of new models and systems advancing college and career readiness and equity such as improved assessment systems, additional accountability measures for the full range of college and career ready outcomes, and whole-child personalization strategies? Where needed and educationally sound, does the state have a strategy to use ESSA waiver authority to implement educational strategies that go above and beyond the statute in advancing college and career readiness and equity?