Monday, July 17, 2017

ESSA State Plan Feedback I Provided to OPI

My response to Montana's July 2017 ESSA plan, submitted to OPI 7/17/17

To Whom It May Concern:
Following is my feedback on Montana’s ESSA plan. I am responding to the parts about which I have most knowledge, thereby leaving out feedback on other aspects such as migrant students. I hope that you will take time to read and consider it; I am happy to provide elaboration or clarification on anything.

Testing/Academic Markers
Much of OPI’s plan is predicated on student test scores. From identifying successful schools to schools in need of improvement, to pinpointing the professional development teachers need – it mostly depends on a school’s test scores according to this plan. I worry that this focus on testing will renew teachers’ fears about the overtesting, testing preparation, and overemphasis on scores that has plagued our schools since No Child Left Behind.

As for the 4% reduction, as a teacher in a Class C school that’s also located on a reservation with large numbers in our “subgroups,” I am very concerned about the rate of improvement the plan insists upon. Some of our students face grave hardships in their lives, and our first and most important responsibility as teachers is to support and guide them, especially when they lack home support. Sometimes this means we have to place academics second. This is not an excuse: it is reality. How will you gauge, with your percentage, the success we teachers have with our students in their social-emotional development? It simply feels that once again our students – and the efforts of teachers – are being reduced to numbers.

On that note, I would strongly encourage considering alternates to a standardized test such as the SBAC. Scored portfolios, writing assessments, and math work can be incorporated into these goals. All this can be quantified. Will it require training? Yes. Will the training itself lead to better instruction? Very likely. So that’s a professional development opportunity that doubles as a way to gauge student learning.

Targeted Schools
I am very concerned about the emphasis on remediation in this plan. Schools are targeted for support when they, for example, fall in the bottom 5% of the state’s rankings. They can exit this status only when they, in part, rise above the 5% threshold. But rankings require that someone is in the bottom 5%. Does this mean there will always be schools targeted for improvement, even if in the hypothetical case that all schools meet the proficiency standards?

There is a logical flaw in this plan’s approach to improvement on the WIDA. The goal is for more students to reach 5.0 on the composite score, but that’s also the exit score. This means that as soon as students reach the goal, they are exited, leaving no students in the population with that high of a score. Mathematically this means the population will never reach the goal identified in this plan.

Title II Part A - This is a copy of the response I wrote to the previous ESSA plan. I have the same concerns today.
There are so many ways to innovate under ESSA in this arena of developing excellent teachers. Here is one specific idea: why doesn’t OPI write in some support for teacher leadership as a tangible part of district governance? OPI could use some of the state’s Title II money to develop an initiative supporting training of teacher leaders who might do what I did for one period a day last year (in my case, developing mentorship program and supporting accreditation efforts). District leadership could use exposure to this idea and the teacher leaders could use support. OPI could offer online webinars on the Learning Hub about teacher leadership for each subgroup.  
Alternatively, Title II Part A allows the creation of teacher and principal academies. Our schools’ leadership across the state could benefit immensely from new ideas, a new culture of innovation and progressive ideas. Yes, creating a principal academy would take a lot of effort, but it would be so worth the effort. And the excellent principals and superintendents who do good work in this state could be the frontrunners on the effort.
Further, did OPI consider the teacher residencies? Our teacher preparation programs need a lot of development, in my experience. OPI could develop a partnership with one promising TPP in Montana to create and pilot a real residency program in the spirit of helping pre-service teachers dive into the experiences of teaching in meaningful ways that prepare them for their own classrooms. We know that new teachers never feel fully prepared, but we could do a lot better than siloed experiences of 30 or 45 hours followed by a full semester of unpaid labor followed by all the responsibilities of an actual classroom.

Specific to this plan, on page 53, the plan reads, “The OPI will develop an annual plan to deliver essential professional development across the state of Montana to educators in schools that are identified for comprehensive, targeted, or universal support in meeting student learning needs.” One way to read this is that OPI will identify ongoing needs in specific districts and will help teachers meet them by providing PD. Another way to read it is that if students do not make academic progress based on test scores, it is the teachers’ fault and responsibility.

Perhaps there is a middle ground to be reached, where OPI recognizes that changing classroom/teaching practices isn’t the only solution to the myriad problems students in our schools face. Teachers can use support in improving school culture (MBI meets this, so thank you for your continued support of that), aiming for increased graduation rates through actual programming supported by OPI, and connecting with communities and families in authentic ways. Though outside the scope of a teacher’s traditional responsibilities, all of this could assist teachers in reaching those kids and maybe addressing the test scores that seem so important.

Yes, Montana has an equity plan, but it reads as a list of existing efforts, not a comprehensive plan to coordinate and implement those efforts. For example, how is the New Teacher Induction Project being leveraged across CSPD/RESA and universities? Perhaps this collaboration exists, but it’s not clear how. An equity plan has merit only if it’s an actual plan.

If OPI is looking for innovative approaches to achieving equitable access to effective educators for all students may I recommend this document published by the Aspen Institute and CCSSO. Some of OPI’s goals reflect what’s here: It identifies 8 equity issues, provides ways to leverage ESSA to address those challenges and includes “high impact state actions” for each.
N.B.: Title II Part A can be used to support equitable access to excellent teachers.


  • Who is the stakeholder group that contributed to this plan?
  • On page 35, the plan states, “By the fall of 2018, the OPI will determine the definition of an ineffective teacher.” How will this definition be developed? Who will be involved?

Anna E. Baldwin, Ed.D.
2014 Montana Teacher of the Year
Arlee High School English Teacher

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