Montana’s Office of Public Instruction is unsure if its new draft plan to raise student achievement will comply with federal law.
State education leaders are required to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education in September, as part of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is the federal replacement for No Child Left Behind.
It attempts to reduce the achievement gap between students and give states more say in local education.
“It is all about equity," Elsie Arntzen Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction said "To make sure that all students can succeed.”
Last Thursday, Arntzen met with more than a half dozen education groups and teachers’ unions to discuss the draft plan that outlines how Montana will raise education results.
Susie Hedalen, the Director of the ESSA rollout for OPI, said their current goal is to decrease the number of students who are not proficient in math and English by 4 percent every year, for the next six years.
“Which we feel is still ambitious and more attainable than many of the other plans I’ve looked at," Hedalen said, "One thing that is unique for Montana is that we took a look at where our groups are starting out and so we have different achievement goals for the different groups of learners in our state.”
What that means, is that the groups of students who currently score the lowest in language arts and math, are required to increase their scores the most.
For example, last year, about 47 percent of white students were proficient in math, compared to about 18 percent of Native American students. If the goals outlined in ESSA are implemented, Native American students will be asked to more than double their math scores by 2022. White students would have to improve their scores, but not as much.
Tammy Lacey is the superintendent of public schools in Great Falls
“I think it is ambitious and attainable, we hope,” Lacey said.
Lacey says schools don’t have good data right now showing what types of education and curriculum are, or aren’t working. She says that’s important information to have when trying to reach new academic goals.
Lacey also says pending budget cuts triggered by declining state revenues could make it harder to reach those goals.
“While at the same time our funding is being reduced we’re being asked to push even further and all of that is going to put a strain on our system,” Lacey said.
As Montana officials watch other states submit their ESSA plans, OPI’s Susie Hedalen says some are being rejected for lacking ambitious enough goals. She says Montana’s draft plan could be at risk of that.
“Our goals are much more attainable. And less ambitious than the other states that have submitted so far,” Hedalen said.
Asked at the meeting of school administrators and the teacher’s union last week if Montana’s goals are realistic, Hedalen said they’re more realistic than other states’ - prompting a laugh from the group.
Someone in the group said "nice deflection".
“It’s all relative,” OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said, as the laughter faded.
Nationally, some education groups and states are expressing frustration that ESSA, which was touted as a education law promoting state control, isn’t allowing for as much state input as was initially promised.
“I’m very wary, and I’m a Montanan, fourth generation, and I can tell you that in the devising of this plan," Arntzen said, "and a lot of Montana voices at the table, this is about Montana and if there is going to be push back, we are going to do that.”
Montana’s draft plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act includes five accountability measurements schools must follow. Most are set by the federal government.
Montana officials have chosen to grade schools on college and career readiness, attendance, science proficiency and a yet to be created school survey. Schools will also be graded on their ability to raise achievement and graduation rates.
OPI’s Susie Hedalen says all schools in Montana will be graded on these criteria, and the bottom five percent will get additional help.
“Schools are not penalized if there is group or school that is not performing they actually get more support and more funding,” Hedalen said.
Montana first released a draft plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, when OPI was under different administration. In that plan, the achievement goals outlined were less ambitious. The new plan seeks to cut rates of deficient students by about half the number compared to the previous administration's plan.
Dennis Parman is the Executive Director of Montana Rural Education Association. He is also former deputy OPI superintendent under the Denise Juneau administration and had a hand in the initial draft of the state’s ESSA plan.
“Within ESSA there is this expectation that there is a certain amount of improvement over time," Parman said. "Our perspective was what is reasonable, what is accomplishable. And what backed that was if those types of targets are set and they’re not attainable Then we knew from experience that there would be a loss of hope. It’s not rocket science, when there is no hope, people give up.”
Montana officials must walk a fine line in drafting a state plan to comply with the new federal education law. OPI is charged with setting attainable goals for their school system and is pushing for local control. But OPI must also come up with a plan that’s ambitious enough and acceptable to federal government.
OPI is taking public comment on its current ESSA plan through August, and will submit its draft to the U.S. Department of Education in September.