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Pa. Department of Education submits federal education plan for review

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

If you've ever wondered what's going on in the minds of state leaders when it comes to education, some experts say looking at Pennsylvania's new education plan — which the state Department of Education submitted Monday to the federal government — could give parents and the public a clue.

“These plans are not the entire blueprint of the entire state education system,” said Julie Rowland Woods, a policy analyst with the nonprofit think tank Education Commission of the States. “What they're choosing to emphasize can help parents better understand their state's vision,”

Under the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind as the federal education law in 2015, all states were required to revamp guidelines for monitoring academic achievement, graduation rates and English learner proficiency.

Specific to Pennsylvania's plan are efforts to measure how prepared students are to find jobs after high school and to reduce chronic absenteeism. The plan is necessary to receive federal education funds.

After Pennsylvania's plan is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, which is likely to happen in the coming weeks, the state must get to work helping local school districts implement the changes.

Local rollout

Rolling out the plan at a local level is going to take some time, according to Tim Hammill, director of curriculum services at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, one of 29 intermediate units across the state that act as an intermediary between the state Department of Education and local districts.

In addition to changes to the way districts report data to the state and a reduction in the amount of time spent on yearly standardized tests, Hammill pointed out that the plan includes efforts to make sure all students have equitable access to science, technology, engineering and math coursework, known as STEM.

“Part of the issue with STEM, though, is that we've been doing it in what I would call a ‘shotgun' approach,” Hammill said, explaining that while many schools across the region are leaders in developing STEM programs, not all students have access to these courses, and the definition of what constitutes a STEM course is inconsistent.

Moving forward, the intermediate unit will be involved in assisting districts with accessing free resources to bring STEM coursework to their schools.

Local educators also are focused on new stepping stones in the ESSA plan for getting kids ready for jobs after high school.

Students will be required to complete career plans at several points during their school careers.

“Having those benchmarks in place at grades 5, 8 and 11, I think, supports having students be prepared,” said Natalie McCracken, assistant superintendent of elementary education with Norwin School District. It helps to have students think about their post-high school options early, she said.

Given the region's aging population and predicted shortage of workers, this requirement fits in with initiatives educators throughout the county have been working on, Norwin Superintendent Bill Kerr said.

But as far as students' day-to-day classroom experiences go, Kerr said not much is likely to change.

That's because ESSA does not change curriculum — the subject material students are required to learn. In a district like Norwin, where students routinely do well on state tests, Kerr said they're likely to continue doing what works for them in terms of instruction.

Tangible changes

One aspect of ESSA that parents will be able to actively engage with is a new school report card, called the Future Ready PA Index. Like other measures of school quality that parents might have come across before, the new system will measure factors like test scores and graduation rates.

It will include factors that may not have been accounted for before, such as school climate, participation in Advanced Placement or career and technology courses, as well as how well students are prepared for opportunities after high school.

The new tool would not give schools a letter grade or a numerical score — a move that's getting mixed reviews.

“Parents and community members are going to see a much better picture,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

He thinks the new tool will give parents a lot more information on what's going on with their schools because it does not reduce school performance to standardized test scores. It also takes some of the testing pressure off teachers and students.

But some say eliminating letter grades or numerical scores could lead to more confusion.

“Will parents and the public really have a clear idea of the school performance in the absence of that?” said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Alliance for Excellent Education.

Moving forward, it will be important to see if the information in the Future Ready PA Index truly reflects a high-performing school, he said.

The state Department of Education received more than 400 comments during the 30-day public comment period prior to submitting the final plan. Those comments will be posted on the department's website, according to a statement released Monday.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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