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U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, education officials trumpet state, local control in new ESSA law

Every Student Succeeds Act signed by Obama late last year


TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici talks to a crowd of education leaders in Beaverton about the new Every Student Succeeds Act.At a briefing Tuesday morning on a new federal education law, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici touted improvements she believes the legislation makes over its controversial predecessor, No Child Left Behind.

Specifically, Bonamici — who was joined at Beaverton City Hall by Oregon’s acting chief education officer, Lindsey Capps, and deputy state superintendent Salam Noor — said the new Every Student Succeeds Act provides more flexibility for states and school districts to make decisions about how to educate students, and lessens duplicative and high-stakes testing that she said can be burdensome for students and teachers.

“The bill isn’t perfect, but I have to say that it is a huge improvement over No Child Left Behind,” Bonamici said.

Noor said he is excited about the new law, which was signed by President Barack Obama last month.

“I think this law aligns really well ... to Oregon priorities, the work that we currently have underway, and, I would say, our values,” he said. “The question is how do we leverage the law and the resources to make significant gains in student achievement in our state? I think that is really the million-dollar question, if you will.”TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici talks to a crowd of education leaders in Beaverton about the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

While the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, does not change current testing requirements, it will give states more options for how to assess students in high school, and it replaces No Child Left Behind’s requirement that school districts make what was called “Adequate Yearly Progress” in favor of state-developed metrics. The goal is to have “fewer, better assessments,” Bonamici explained.

The specifics of how the new law will be implemented have yet to be determined, Bonamici and the state officials noted.

“What we want to do right now is really understand not just the spirit of the law, but the actual intent of the law,” said Noor. “And we will not really fully understand that until the U.S. Department of Education issues guidance. ... We’re looking forward to a more partner-like and collegial relationship with the U.S. Department of Education and we’ve seen glimpses of that.”

Still, Bonamici noted some in Congress have reservations about the looser reins given to state and local authorities.

“There are concerns among many of my colleagues about what happens in states where they don’t have strong leaders, strong educational leaders,” she said. “There will be a lot of work done to make sure that nationally, each state is stepping up and doing what they need to do. And there can be consequences — I mean, there can be withholding of funding and there can be other consequences — if states are not following not only the letter but the intent of the law as well.”

Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, something lawmakers and the governor’s office have been trying to address through the so-called “40-40-20” initiative, which calls for all students to graduate high school or an equivalent program, 40 percent to get an associate’s degree or occupational certification, and 40 percent to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Obviously, we have a tremendous opportunity through ESSA, both at the state and local level, with new flexibility,” said Capps. “But with that new flexibility comes a reaffirmed commitment to high standards, reaffirmed commitment to closing the opportunity gap, and it puts a challenge before all of us to be able to develop a plan that continues to move us forward.”

Bonamici pointed out an amendment she added to the law that effectively expands the federal definition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to STEAM by adding “arts” and design to its scope.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor (right) speaks about the Every Student Succeeds Act at an education briefing in the Beaverton council chambers Tuesday, alongside U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (left) and Acting Oregon Chief Education Officer Lindsey Capps.

“This is a way to really make sure that we’re educating people who are creative, critical thinkers and innovators,” she remarked. “I will say that I tour businesses as well as schools, and I’ve never had one business owner tell me they’re looking for a good test-taker. They’re looking for people who can come up with new ways to solve problems and work together on a team, and all these things that are furthered through educating both halves of the brain.”

STEAM education has become a priority for several schools and communities in the Portland area, including in Tualatin, where expanding access to STEAM tools and concepts forms the centerpiece of a plan the city hopes will win it as much as $3 million through a national competition in which it is a semifinalist.

The education briefing Tuesday was attended by several dozen school officials and others, including at least two state representatives.

Rep. Lew Frederick of Portland said he has spoken with parents who are concerned not about ESSA’s impact on gathering and using information from assessments, but about whether the law will improve their children’s classroom experience.

“What they really want to see is, when they walk into a classroom, what’s going to help their second-grade student,” Frederick said.

Bonamici responded, saying she thinks the law’s focus on “well-rounded education” and removing the “high stakes” in standardized testing will be beneficial to students.

“Yes, the assessments are still there,” she said. “And that is something that was important to get the bill passed, frankly, and it’s also important to make sure that we are assessing all the subgroups of students and getting that data. But with the high stakes gone, I see a lot of pressure being relieved ... (There’s) less focus on prepping for tests to the exclusion of other courses.”

Forest Grove Rep. Susan McLain was enthusiastic about the law’s implications for STEAM.

“I want us to be creative,” she said. “I hope I get to be part of the architect team this time, and I promise to help with that element of looking at STEAM and other types of evaluations that are reasonable and important.”

At this point, the timeline for the next steps with ESSA is rather fuzzy.

Noor promised an effort this spring to talk to the public about what the new law means and gather input on how Oregon should work with it. By August, he said, the state hopes to have a draft action plan ready for the U.S. Department of Education to review, although he said the department might not be ready to take it up by then.

The federal draft regulations are expected to be introduced by May 2016, with final regulations set for publication in October 2016 and full implementation of the state plan in the 2017-18 school year.