Elsie Arntzen’s ESSA Plan Has Serious Flaws, Says Department of Education, Independent Observers

Late last week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen told Montana Public Radio that the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind) plan her office submitted to the Department of Education only required “technical changes” to the plan and that Montana was “in charge” of its implementation.

Not so fast, Elsie. Education Week reports today that Montana’s proposal has significant weaknesses:

The feds are asking for a long list of specific details on Montana’s plans to measure academic achievement, graduation rates, English-language proficiency, and more. The department is also not sure that Montana’s plans for identifying the lowest-performing schools and deciding when they are no longer low-performing are compliant with ESSA. And the agency needs much more from Montana on pinpointing more serious interventions for schools that perennially fail to improve.

Other than academic achievement, graduation, low-performing schools and a host of other issues, Montana’s plan was…a plan.

Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success offered a complete analysis of the 34 state plans submitted this year and backed the Department of Education’s findings, concluding that the Montana plan:

  • does not provide sufficient detail or description about the proposed accountability system, how it will be integrated with other state initiatives, or—most importantly—how it will substantially improve student achievement and close performance gaps.
  • does not set a high bar for academic proficiency or growth. The long-term goals for proficiency appear low, especially for the subgroups that are already the furthest behind.
  • places too much weight on indicators such as chronic absenteeism, while deemphasizing academic achievement.
  • is relative instead of objective, which means schools can be perceived as improving merely because other schools are declining, irrespective of their own progress or lack thereof.
  • lacks detail in a number of critical areas. It does not appear that the state sufficiently analyzed data or provided enough detail to fully understand the implications of the various choices it is making.

Arntzen played off concerns about the flaws in Montana’s plan, suggesting that the ESSA gives states more flexibility on implementation and she’s right about that, as the Department of Education’s response has already baked in state flexibility into its feedback submitted to the state.

The language of the Dept. of Education feedback form is just about the worst example of bureaucratic nonsense one will ever read, but a few items give a sense of the deficiencies in the Arntzen proposal. One of the weakest elements of the Arntzen-submitted proposal was a vaguely defined plan to award points to school districts for “improving program quality indicators” that was not defined nor explained.

Well, the Department of Education saw right through that:

OPI describes an additional measure of school quality that it indicates will be created in the future to measure “program quality.” OPI indicates that this measure has not yet been developed, and does not specify how points will be assigned in a consistent manner. If OPI intends to use the indicator in its accountability system in the 2017-2018 school year, the ESEA requires that OPI describe how the indicator is valid, reliable, comparable, statewide, and will allow for meaningful differentiation in school performance.

Another in the comprehensive list of flaws uncovered by the Department of Education was a fundamental math error in Arntzen’s much-hyped plan to reduce the number of non-proficient students by four per cent a year:

In addition, on page 18 of its State plan, OPI refers to long-term goals that anticipate annually reducing the “number of students that are not proficient” by four percent but later on the same page refers to decreasing the “percent of non-proficient students” by four percent. Because the statements regarding reducing the number of students by four percent and decreasing the percentage of non-proficient students by four percent are not consistent, it is unclear how OPI meets the ESEA requirement.

When the centerpiece of the proposal is a four per cent reduction, one would think that Arntzen would have at least made sure her math was consistent.

Most troubling in the federal feedback is the suggestion that almost none of the programs, from improving services to homeless youths to actually raising math scores offer any kind of specific guidance to schools districts across the state from OPI.

Ultimately, this feedback from the federal government and Artnzen’s response to it are characteristic of her tenure at OPI. Instead of dealing with facts and carefully submitting the required paperwork to the federal government, Arntzen assumed that a little bit of bluster and a little effort on a last-minute assignment would suffice.

On this first major assignment, it would be hard to give Mrs. Arntzen a grade any better than “Incomplete,” no matter how she spins the results.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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