02/01/2016 01:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2017

Open Letter to States and Localities: How to Implement "Every Student Succeeds" to Significantly Improve Low-achieving Schools

For 15 years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) increasingly cast a pall over American public schools. Its punitive, rigid and misconceived accountability system left millions of disadvantaged students behind.

Thankfully in December, Congress replaced NCLB. "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA) breaks NCLB's link between tests and sanctions. ESSA returns broad authority to States and localities/school districts, retaining limited federal accountability.

Now that States/localities will be freed from NCLB, the critical question is: how can they use their new flexibility to meet the difficult challenge of significantly improving our many thousands of low-achieving Title I-funded schools?

Fortunately, much is already known about turning around low-achieving schools. Research and experience show they're five common elements low-achieving schools typically address together to turn themselves around: Leadership. Instruction. Curriculum. School Climate. Parent and Community Involvement and Support. Specific common strategies are used for each element.

While ESSA doesn't wholly adopt the common elements/strategies, it supports all five elements and includes many strategies -- some as requirements, others as authorized uses.

What States/districts need to do now is: innovatingly implement -- in all low-achieving schools -- those ESSA provisions that embody the common strategies, while concurrently implementing the other strategies ESSA doesn't address.

Specifically, States/districts should focus on three aspects of ESSA:

Improvement Strategies
Under ESSA, Title I local educational agency plans must be designed to "strengthen academic programs and improve school conditions for student learning [.]" ESSA, 1112(b)(1)(D).

On leadership: States may, and I believe, "should" use Title II funds to assist districts to train principals to effectively enhance student learning. 2101(c)(4)(b)(viii).

Instruction: districts' Title I Schoolwide Programs should provide for professional development to strengthen teaching, 1114(b)(7)(iii)(IV); Title II subgrants should include mentoring for new teachers, and training teachers to employ formative and classroom-built assessments and effectively instruct students with disabilities and English learners. 2103(b)(3)(B)(iv)(F)(H).

Curriculum: local plans must provide a "well-rounded" curriculum. 1112(b)(1)(A).

School Climate: local plans must seek to reduce excessive suspensions and expulsions, 1112(b)(11), and districts' Title II subgrants should train staff how to reduce chronic absentees, alcohol and drug abuse. 2103(b)(3)(I)(iv).

Parent/Community: local plans must provide for "effective parent and family engagement," 1112(b)(7); Schoolwide Programs should provide for wrap-around services, including in-school mental health. 1114(b)(5)(7)(A)(iii)(I).

Non-academic Indicators & Reporting
ESSA's requirement that States adopt an accountability indicator of "school quality or student success," 1111(c)(4)(B)(v), is important for school improvement: it shifts NCLB's intense emphasis from raising achievement scores and graduation rates to also emphasizing the need to improve low-achieving schools. But, ESSA's restricting accountability indicators to those which can disaggregate results by student subgroup, 1111(c)(4)(B), appears to limit school quality accountability indicators to student surveys, where subgroups are identifiable.

Students can meaningfully assess conditions of learning in six domains: physical appearance; attitudes/culture; student relationships; learning process; discipline; and parents/community. But they cannot assess two other domains critical for school improvement -- leadership and teaching -- e.g. extent of shared mission, decision-making and teacher collaboration. To validly and reliably assess those domains, faculty surveys would be needed. Assessing all domains is invaluable not only for needs analysis, but to create a shared vision among stakeholders and plan needed improvements.

States could effectively assess all domains by adopting both accountability indicators for the six domains susceptible to student surveys and non-accountability, staff survey indicators for the leadership and teaching domains. In fact, ESSA facilitates this hybrid approach. It requires State and district annual Report Cards to include not only accountability indicator results, but also any other information they believe would best inform the public about each school's progress. 1111(h)(1)(C)(xiv)(2)(C)(iii). Including information about teaching and leadership improvements would serve exactly this purpose.

Since what gets measured and reported, gets done, States having such indicators would powerfully focus districts and schools on implementing important conditions of learning.

Fortunately, a valid, reliable, high-quality student and staff school climate indicator already exists to assess these eight domains: "School Climate Assessment Indicator" (SCAI). SCAI student instruments satisfy all statistical requirements for non-academic accountability indicators. 1111(c)(4)(B)(v).

Turnaround Leaders
Having principals capable of leading collaboration with stakeholders to develop and implement comprehensive school improvement plans, 1111(d)(1)(B), 1114(b), and create the common elements will be essential to turning around low-achieving schools.

To develop such principals, States and colleges of education should jointly apply for 2243(a)(3) competitive grants to establish programs to train experienced principals to lead turnarounds of the lowest-achieving schools identified under 1111(c)(4)(D)(i).

Although turning around low-achieving schools is difficult, it's been done. States and localities can do it now, nationwide. To succeed, you need to focus on innovatingly implementing ESSA's improvement strategies, indicators, reporting and principal training as described above, while integrating them with the other aspects of the common elements of successful school turnarounds. America's future is depending on you.