Nearly fourteen years separate the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015 from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, and much has changed in that time. Technology has reshaped the world, transforming social structures, disrupting entire industries, and impacting institutions, including schools.
Numerous state and districts (twenty-eight states and DC with nearly 3,100 districts) have acknowledged the need to keep pace with this rapidly changing world and have committed to the Future Ready Schools® (FRS) initiative.
As ESSA rolls back the federal role in education, creating additional flexibility for states and districts in the process, many state leaders are considering how to best utilize the law to support their efforts particularly in the context of the recent, significant political changes. Indeed, ask a room of educators for their thoughts on the new law and the two words you will likely hear are “opportunity” and “uncertainty.” While 16 states plus the District of Columbia have already submitted their ESSA Plans, the remaining states will continue to wrestle with this challenge until they submit their ESSA Plans this fall. For the 19 Future Ready States that haven’t already submitted their ESSA Plans (9 Future Ready states and the DC already submitted), this provides a unique opportunity to further embed and align their Future Ready work. For the other 16 states, this is a moment to reflect on their vision for the future and the role of digital learning to support that vision and, perhaps, join the ranks of the existing 29 Future Ready States (including DC).
Role of the State in Supporting “Future Readiness”
Before considering how states can take advantage of ESSA, it is important to reflect on different ways state departments of education can support the goals of FRS. First, states play a critical role in establishing a FRS culture by doing such things as articulating a clear vision, modeling behaviors (e.g., utilizing technology appropriately and effectively in communications and trainings), and recognizing and validating the work of FRS districts. In short, the state can achieve a lot by sending a clear signal that Future Ready work is important.
Second, states can create an environment that provides fertile ground for FRS efforts at the district level. This involves utilizing the full arsenal of levers at the state’s disposal, including policy; funding; development and curation of curriculum and professional development resources; cultivation of coalitions, partnerships, and professional learning network; and infrastructure projects to support and align with the FRS framework and gears. While state efforts may prioritize certain gears over others based on local needs, establishing this ecosystem is critical for district success.
Finally, states also provide direct support and technical assistance to districts that have embarked on their own FRS mission. In this role, states build local capacity either directly or intentionally working with other organizations, such as education service agencies, to provide training and support.
All three of these efforts must come together to ensure equitable “Future Readiness” across a state, and ESSA provides opportunities to support each of these critical state functions.
Step 1: Articulate your Future Ready Vision
Making the most of the opportunities presented by ESSA begins with articulating the state’s clear vision for the future of teaching and learning. By adopting a vision aligned with the FRS framework, the state would be reaffirming the central purpose of a school system: preparing students for the future. It would also be acknowledging the inescapable role technology is playing in reshaping the world and the need to transform the system to adapt to these changes. When this vision is framed and articulated, it provides a powerful lens for looking at all of the state’s work and empowers a state to take the important step of integrating FRS with other state initiatives. Integrating the initiatives makes it easier for a state to complete the ESSA consolidated plan and leverage the funding opportunities the statute creates to support the initiatives.
Once the vision has been articulated, the state can then identify obstacles to achieving that vision as well as priority areas, activities, or strategies for overcoming those obstacles. Looking at the priority areas, activities, and strategies through the lens of FRS and aligning them with the FRS gears can be helpful as the state contemplates how to provide targeted support to districts and educators directly.
Step 2: Incorporate FRS into the State’s Consolidated ESSA Plan
The next step for leveraging ESSA to support FRS work is to weave the state’s vision and activities throughout the state’s consolidated ESSA plan. The Alliance has created resources that point states to the areas in both the original Consolidated Plan Template and the Revised Consolidated Plan Template issued by the new administration. In doing this, there are areas where the connections to FRS are clear, specifically, the parts of both consolidated plan templates that cover Title IV A, which is reimagined under ESSA as a block grant for student support and academic enrichment with a portion of the funds available to support digital infrastructure and integration of technology in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, FRS resources, such as the interactive planning dashboard, hub, and infrastructure guide, are specifically referenced in the U.S. Department of Education’s non-regulatory guidance on Title IV.
Beyond Title IV A, there are several other ways that states can leverage the consolidated plan and the planning process to further their Future Ready work:
- Outreach and Input. In developing their state consolidated plan, ESSA provides states with an opportunity to engage their FRS ecosystem of FRS districts, professional associations, higher education, business and community organizations, and other stakeholders who are interested in the state’s vision. Talk to them, listen to them, and include them in the consolidated plan so everyone can see the organizations in the state that are involved with its FRS initiative.
- School Improvement and Interventions and Direct Student Services. The ESSA consolidated plan provides states with a good opportunity to explain the role that personalized learning and technology will play in supporting the state’s school improvement efforts. States can describe how evidence-based personalized learning practices will be implemented in schools identified for targeted and comprehensive support. In addition, states can use up to 3 percent of their Title I funds for “Direct Student Services,” including personalized learning.
- Educator Growth and Development Systems. Because the successful integration of technology in the classroom relies on the skills and abilities of teachers and leaders, ESSA’s provisions related to professional development and quality instruction provide states with the opportunity to identify the systems and activities they are putting in place to support the Personalized Professional Learning gear from the FRS framework to support the improvement of digital leadership and teaching in the state in general.
- Depending on the state’s FRS plan and priorities, there may be other opportunities within a state’s consolidated plan (and during implementation) to support their FRS priorities. To ensure states take advantage of opportunities presented by ESSA, it is critical to involve the right people. States should engage individuals within their departments of education who are supporting FRS (or personalized learning, digital learning, etc.) to make sure they are involved in the planning process.
Step 3: Align Resources and Funding to the ESSA Plan
Making the State’s ESSA Plan a reality requires coordinating work and resources across the SEA. By way of example under ESSA, a state may use up to three percent of its Title I funds for “direct student services,” which districts can in turn use in order to support components of personalized learning. Additionally, ESSA created a new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program which authorizes up to $1.6 billion annually to provide formula grants to states for multiple purposes, including improving student academic achievement and digital literacy through the effective use of technology.
As such, it is important to engage the various Title offices, and other offices responsible for handling federal funding or supporting district implementation to determine how funds will be deployed in accordance with the ESSA Plan. Similarly, these groups need to determine what guidance may be necessary for districts. This is hard work. Starting these conversations now can prevent delays and confusion in the future as states move from developing to implementing their state plans.
It’s easy to be blinded by the confusion that surrounds ESSA, and to dismiss the State Plan as a compliance exercise – a tedious compliance exercise. However armed with a clear vision and a thoughtful approach to engaging stakeholders, a state can leverage the opportunities ESSA creates to make progress towards future readiness, aligned with other key initiatives and resources. Want help thinking about how to incorporate Future Ready Schools into your State ESSA Plan, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Evo Popoff
Evo currently serves as the State Lead for Future Ready Schools ® where he works with state departments of education to support digit learning across their districts. Prior to his work with Future Ready Schools ®, Evo was the Chief Innovation and Intervention Officer for the state of New Jersey where, among other things, he promoted digital equity and the integration of technology in the state’s schools through the Future Ready Schools NJ, InnovateNJ and the state-wide broadband initiatives. In recognition of this work, Evo was named the 2015 State Policy-Maker of the Year by the State Education Technology Directors Association. Connect with him on twitter at @epopoff.