The real work happens in local districts and classrooms

I could title my first back to school essay on how I spent my summer vacation as “Working through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)”.

Debbie Critchfield, vice president of the State Board of Education

ESSA is the federal law that provides guidance and funding to states to assure equal access to quality public education opportunities for every child. As a member of Idaho’s State Board of Education, I was part of a team that spent the last eighteen months developing Idaho’s plan for meeting the federal requirements. The State of Idaho will submit its plan to the federal government Sept. 18. The nine titles, or sections, contained in this document detail the ways in which our state will handle our special student populations, underprivileged students, low and underperforming schools and other specified groups, like homeless children. The federal act is designed to provide equal opportunity and access for all students, particularly those that receive the least support. Any good statewide plan should also include attention for middle to high functioning students to advance their growth, as well. Under this plan, Idaho has an opportunity to set the pace and context by which we help all students.

While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education has to “sign-off” on our plan, the Department has shown much more flexibility in the approval process than in the past, and states who opted for an early submittal are seeing their plans approved in their entirety. We are hopeful that Idaho’s plan, which was developed by Idahoans for Idahoans, will also receive approval.

Additionally, our state plan lays-out a statewide accountability framework by which we can review academic success among all K-12 public schools. One of the most noteworthy features of our mandated accountability framework is its ability to take in multiple indicators of school successes and an accommodation for student growth, not solely achievement. Idaho has not had an accountability system in place since 2014. This new framework can guide schools to state educational targets.

So what does this mean for our local students, and why should schools and parents invest energy and time to understand and implement the plan? The answer goes far beyond the cliché response that “the federal government is making us”. It is true that we are required to have a plan. To simply take the approach of compliance does nothing to advance the intended outcomes of a plan that was designed to help kids. A singular attitude of compliance is a wasted opportunity for our students and schools. If our general attitude is one of nonchalant adherence, we will struggle to meet any of our goals, which center on greater universal student achievement.

When I look at the whole picture of how federal and state roles impact the average classroom, I have concluded that there are three things that cannot be mandated or federally enforced if we are to move the needle. The power of an effective teacher combined with strategic local policies added to parent/adult engagement will make or break any federal or state requirements. Federal and state laws seek to provide appropriate sideboards, but ultimately the real work happens in local districts and classrooms.

I have traveled around the state to discuss many education initiatives and know the classrooms in my own back yard of Cassia County quite well. From considerable time spent on federal and state initiatives, it has been confirmed time and again that the influence of dynamic teachers, informed policies and committed adults will drive achievement. In that powerful system, the state’s federal plan only serves as the scaffold to those forces. The federal government cannot legislate our success. That’s on us.

Written by Debbie Critchfield, vice president of the Idaho State Board of Education.