ESSA regulations need improvement, AFT tells Ed Department

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The AFT weighed in on proposed federal regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act this month, highlighting areas where the Department of Education must rework its draft in order to give schools a real shot at moving away from the current burdens of test-and-punish reform. A rewrite of the draft regulations is a must for resetting the climate and steering clear of the counterproductive, punitive excesses we saw under ESSA's predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote to Education Secretary John King in an Aug. 1 letter.

Weingarten urged the department to rethink and rewrite key sections of the draft, asking questions that point to prerequisites for success: Will the regulations allow for engaging learning that is guided by a rich curriculum? Will they foster collaboration and capacity building? Are they transparent, and do they allow for flexibility to respond to community and stakeholder feedback? Do they provide the time for states to develop accountability systems that focus on the whole child rather than fixating on testing? And do they end the NCLB-era sanctioning and punishing of schools?

"When held to these standards, the Education Department proposals succeed in some areas and fall short in others," Weingarten concludes. "However, the AFT does have some major concerns that parts of the proposed regulations walk away from ESSA's promise of flexibility and opportunity, and we seek changes in the following areas before these rules become final."

Among the elements that must be changed before the proposal is finalized:

  • Guidelines that are too compressed to allow states to move off of test-driven systems now in place.
  • Divisive punishments imposed for opting out of tests, which ignore the outcry by parents and educators concerning overtesting.
  • Too-narrow measures of equity that focus only per-pupil expenditures and on disproportionate access to ineffective, out-of-field or inexperienced teachers.
  • Inflexible graduation rate requirements
  • Language that would perpetuate the labeling of schools A through F letter grades because they require states to produce a single summative rating for each school.
  • Regulations requiring states to submit a definition of "ineffective teachers," which will encourage states to retain language developed under NCLB and Race to the Top while ignoring the fact that ESSA squarely rejects the federal government involving itself in the teacher evaluation process.

Weingarten's comments to King were reinforced by feedback from the field. AFT affiliates in Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas also submitted formal comments to the Education Department. And over the past several days, roughly 5,400 AFT activists have signed a petition urging federal regulators to address major concerns and offer necessary changes before the draft rules become final.

Not all of the draft was flawed, said the AFT president, who pointed to several positives in the language. Although it was not supported by the department's proposed timeline, the draft did feature language that reinforces the flexibility states need to incorporate new measures of school quality and student success into their accountability systems—language that goes beyond test scores. Likewise, the draft does a good job upholding ESSA's intent to invite local school systems and their stakeholders to select interventions tailored for struggling schools. Also positive is a proposed requirement for states to report data comparing charter school demographics and student achievement to schools in the surrounding communities.

These are constructive changes, and now is the time to make sure that the entire draft rises to this caliber, Weingarten said. "Regulations should clearly follow the intent and language of the new law, which allows for a reset of education policy and a focus on children, not testing," Weingarten emphasized in the letter to King, which contains a section-by-section analysis of the regulations.

[AFT staff report]