Burlington area superintendents react to new federal education program

WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa — This week the Iowa Department of Education submitted its final plan for meeting requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2015, ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was signed into law by former President George W. Busch in 2002.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, ESSA "maintains the former No Child Left Behind Act's focus on school accountability and equity for all students while shifting decision-making back to states and local districts".

"No Child Left Behind was top down and very punitive," David Schmitt, Superintendent of West Burlington Independent School District said, "'You don't do this level on your test, we're going to do this to you' and that doesn't work very well at all," he continued, "You get more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar."

Mr. Schmitt is the superintendent of a district with a graduation rate of 98.11%, according to the most recent 2016 Graduation Rates by District list. Out of the 309 school districts in Iowa with reported numbers, West Burlington Independent is 68th on the list. The district is small. In 2016, the total class size was 53 students; 46% listed as free and reduced lunch.

About four miles away, Burlington Community School District's 2016 graduate rate was 70.04% according to the same list and ranked second to last, at 308 out of 309 listed districts. The 2016 total class size was nearly five times larger than its smaller, West Burlington neighbor with 257 students; 56% listed as free and reduced lunch.

The districts are different. Different students, different families, different teachers, different obstacles and ways of defining success, and certainly, different graduation rates, but talk to their superintendents, and you will find a commonality.

They both like ESSA.

"Every Child Succeeds gives states and districts some latitude to determine for themselves how they're going to do some of these things. It's actually very exciting and I believe it's a step in the right direction," Patrick Coen, Superintendent of Burlington Community School District said.

Though Mr. Coen believes ESSA is a step in the right direction, he's critical of the pace of change of federal education reform.

"You look at the time hack from one, to another, to the next one – it’s accelerating," said Mr. Coen.

It took 37 years for No Child Left Behind to replace its predecessor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It took just 13 years to replace No Child Left Behind.

"The federal government, probably the best thing they can do for us, is they can stop some of the madness," Mr. Coen said, "There’s an operational tempo that is just continuously changing. Teachers never go into the classroom on firm ground, they’re never enough, there’s always the new thing, you got to do this instead of that," he continued.

Coen believes by slowing down and letting education reforms take hold, students and teachers would be better off.

"You can imagine," Coen explained, "If you taught school for 25 or 30 years and what you do is never good enough, and there’s constant change and turmoil - the federal government could really just slow down, and they could look at implementation time hacks, and they could schedule things out differently, and they could give people an opportunity to actually get into the classroom and execute their skill set within the same framework that was expected the prior year."

With ESSA, now states submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education for its approval. Administrators say it's more of a bottom-up approach than a top-down.

"I am not opposed to school standards currently there are Iowa School standards," Mr. Schmitt of West Burlington said, "I am not opposed if the fed provides or mandates those core standards through the schools, but again we need the opportunity to tweak and we need the opportunity fit our students here."

The federal government provides funding for title funds, which help students with literacy and early math skills; it also provides free and reduced lunch funds, which Mr. Schmitt acknowledges are very important.

"So keep those funds coming," Mr. Schmitt said.

The key of federal programs though, Mr. Schmitt says, is ultimately local control.

"We’re the ones in the trenches, our school board lives in our local community, our teachers are the ones who are interacting with the students, so it’s very important that those who are closest to the students have the opportunity to make decisions to their education," Mr. Schmitt said.

ESSA establishes new ways to identify and support struggling schools. In Iowa, schools that need improvement will be identified by several factors including academic achievement. The new plan focuses on helping districts that don't meet their goals, instead of punishing them.

"Our requirements are somewhat left up to us to decide, one of the positives coming out of [the plan] is No Child Left Behind was a high stakes testing, everything boiled down to how your kids scored, everything was top down from the federal government," Mr. Coen of Burlington said.

Mr. Coen believes Iowa always has and will be a local control state.

"Which is good," Coen said, "because we know in education - your education system should align with your economy, it should align with your local community, and anytime those things come out of alignment with each other, you’re not functioning in the most efficient way to improve your community."

According to the Iowa Department of Education, department officials collected public input throughout the fall of 2016 and and winter of 2017. The department released three draft's of Iowa's ESSA plan for public review this year.

One of the districts Ryan Wise, Iowa Department of Education Director met with was Burlington.

"We were fortunate enough Dr. Ryan Wise, Director of Education was here in Burlington and we were able to meet with him at my home, with my core leadership team," Mr. Coen said, "There is no question that Ryan is an educational warrior and doing everything he can to help our children. So I am pretty confident in what he does, and what he will help lead his team to bring to us."

Iowa's ESSA plan was signed by Governor Kim Reynolds and sent to the U.S. Department of Education for approval on September 19, 2017. It will be under review for up to 120 days. According to the Iowa Department of Education, further guidance and support to school districts on ESSA plan implementation will be provided this fall.