Colorado’s ESSA Plan Gets High Marks

Thanks to an inclusive and well-designed approach, Colorado is among a small group of states that met an April 3 deadline to submit plans to implement new federal education legislation.

Participants and outside observers have praised the state for its ability to involve a wide swath of stakeholders in drafting its plan to implement the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to No Child Left Behind.

“The government said, ‘You have to consult with stakeholders,’ but the law gave few guidelines,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, Distinguished Research Professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University.

For that reason, some states have struggled through the process or delayed plans until the final September deadline, but not Colorado. The state has distinguished itself for its unique plan and thorough public engagement.

“Top Performer” in Stakeholder Engagement

Colorado officials conducted seven statewide ESSA listening sessions. Then, utilizing a “hub-and-spoke” committee model, they formed seven “spoke” committees with 130 members that fed information into a “hub” committee of 20 statewide leaders who met nine times and formulated a draft ESSA implementation plan. In total, the state oversaw 170 meetings and collected more than 5,000 public comments.

Wohlstetter and two colleagues are conducting a research project on ESSA and intergovernmental relations. They have tracked each state’s outreach efforts and filed them into three categories: “Informative,” which provide information to the public; “consultative,” which gather public feedback but don’t necessarily use it to develop a plan; and “collaborative,” which gather public feedback through regular meetings and incorporate it into the state’s plan.

“A lot of states had listening tours so they would get feedback, but they weren’t doing anything with it,” Wohlstetter said. “Colorado was a top performer, not only pushing out a lot of information but being collaborative, setting up committees and using the information they got.”

Groups representing traditional education advocacies, civil rights organizations and business groups confirmed these findings and are satisfied with how the process played out.

Sean Bradley, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver who sat on the “hub” committee, said about 30 civil rights groups met with top education officials early on to show how serious they were about being a part of the process. Since the “spoke” committees met during the day when working parents and teachers could not attend, the groups requested that the meetings be live-streamed and that people watching could submit questions.

“There’s a lot of talk about black and brown issues but black and brown people aren’t at the table when those decisions are being made. We’re trying to change that narrative in the state,” Bradley stated.

Partners Getting Creative with ESSA’s Flexibility

One hallmark of ESSA is the flexibility it gives state education officials in how they allocate resources for Title I, the federal program which provides education funding for low-income students. Officials in Colorado are seizing this opportunity.

“One of the exciting things about the new law is that it broadens the uses of funds and lets school districts spend in new ways,” stated Pat Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the Colorado Department of Education. “Title I primarily targets students who are farther away from achieving standards, who are struggling to be proficient in math or reading. The new law really does target all kids, and we’re really excited about the potential for these funds to have a dramatic impact directly on students. There’s a real-life impact on kids right out of the gate.”

Chapman said the agency is looking to take advantage of that as much as possible in some untraditional ways, such as programs for career and technical schools, which have never been a focus for Title I funds before.

Beyond the education department, community organizations around the state are also looking at creative ways to help students. Bradley explained that the Urban League is interested in grants through Title I that they can use in partnership with local school districts to assist homeless youth. Denver has a substantial number of students who, while not living on the streets, are not in stable environments.

“It’s an opportunity for us and others to do what we can to provide real support services for those students,” he added. “There’s much more flexibility for organizations to apply [for grants] and for the opportunity to be at the table when decisions are made on who will receive grants.”

For the business community, the newfound Title I flexibility is a chance to work with local schools and districts to help create programs like apprenticeships, job training and credentialing that will lead to high-quality employees. Colorado Succeeds represents business leaders throughout the state who are looking for ways to help students beyond writing sponsorship checks. They see new and unique opportunities under ESSA.

“It’s a chance to integrate more science and technology,” said Shannon Nicholas, the group’s director of Communications and Programs. “We’re big advocates of thinking more strongly about computer science. The jobs we have now aren’t the same job we will have 20 years from now. For our members, it’s a chance to provide partnership and opportunity for students to explore the different opportunities available in their communities, giving kids access to technology and future jobs.”

Education Reformers Demand High-Quality Tests

In addition to funding and improving employment opportunities, testing was another major topic in the discussions held around the state.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, a statewide initiative focused on raising academic standards, sat on the assessments “spoke” committee and commended the state for facilitating good conversations about the tests students are required to take.

Colorado will go into the next school year with their current set of assessments intact, but since students will be taking more tests than required by ESSA, education officials and lawmakers are reviewing various options to change that.

“We have some strong opinions on what we expect out of our assessments,” Carter said. “Not everyone’s bought into statewide testing so we’re not forcing ourselves into a unanimous conclusion on the topic. There are basic criteria we want to make sure we have.”

Climb Higher Colorado is part of the Equity in Colorado Coalition, which is comprised of more than 20 groups focused on closing achievement and accessibility gaps for minority student populations, low-income students, students with disabilities and bilingual students. Several representatives of individual groups served on various “spoke” committees, and, while Carter said they were “satisfied” with the state’s plan, there’s a recognition that more needs to be done.

A Plan for the Future

Once the state submits its plan to the U.S. Department of Education, officials see their real work beginning: working with local districts and schools to figure out how to implement it in classrooms. But even as state officials shift their focus, they remain committed to staying in contact with the public.

“We have pledged that a year in, we’ll reconnect with people to see what’s working and what’s not,” Chapman said.

That pledge is resonating with participants who now see themselves as partners with the state education department going forward.

“We appreciate the work that’s gone into this, and we’re going to assume the best,” Carter said. “If we see the state move forward without making adjustments based on feedback, you may see more traditional roles for advocacy groups pushing back and calling that out. We’re looking for opportunities to do more, to make the plan better.”

Bradley echoed Carter’s sentiments, noting that groups like the Urban League have a responsibility to participate in meetings.

“Even though we made some really good progress, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done,” he said. “We have to find the best ways to make sure that our kids are getting the best possible education. If students aren’t learning, we have to figure out why not and use the best tools we have to make sure they can.”

The business community will also be keeping a close watch.

“There are places where the state left the plan somewhat vague so our biggest concern is around implementation,” Nicholas said. “A plan is just a piece of paper until we start working on it together.”

While the hard work of implementation remains, Colorado’s outreach efforts have forged partnerships that are essential to taking full advantage of ESSA to the benefit of all students.

Jessica R. Towhey is a Education writer to RealClearEducation. 

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