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New Federal Education Policy Hands Wyoming The Reins

Tennessee Watson

In 2015, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Known as ESSA, it gives states more authority over K-12 education than they have had in nearly two decades. Now that the two-year transition period is over, ESSA will take effect this fall.

The transition has been met with enthusiasm from Jillian Balow, Superintendent of Public Instruction. She said, “No Child Left Behind was very punitive in nature.” 

For Balow, the now defunct federal education policy felt disconnected from the needs of Wyoming. “It was accountability that was driven by compliance,” she said. 

“If you are complying and your students look like this then you are doing well. If you are complying and your teachers look like this then you are doing well.”

With ESSA, gone are the days of Common Core which held students and schools to national academic performance standards. In contrast, Balow said, Wyoming now must define for itself what doing well means for both students and teachers. And with that, she said, “There’s a lot of opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is, and take responsibility and ownership over our challenges and really build on what we do well.” 

Balow pointed out that parents and students will be happy to know the system being proposed reduces the emphasis on high stakes testing. Assessment will be less cookie cutter and more like baking a cake.  

“When I’m checking a cake to see if it’s done, I don’t just put one toothpick in the middle,” Balow explained.

“I check it in different places and that’s really what we want to do to ensure that our students are competitive in Wyoming, nationally, and internationally.”

While it’s now largely up to the Wyoming Department of Education to determine what to monitor, this new level of authority also comes with an increased responsibility and an obligation to keep a close eye on achievement gaps at the state level. Balow said, “For example, shining a spotlight on our homeless students is really important. And not something that we’ve taken an opportunity to do in Wyoming before.” 

ESSA requires that states focus on the needs of subgroups such as low-income students, students of color, kids with disabilities and English Language Learners. Wyoming wants to go one step further and support students caught in up in the juvenile justice system.

Balow said that’s now possible because, “ESSA really stresses that there needs to be more emphasis on the growth that students make as opposed to every student looking the same by the time they are a high school graduate.”

But don’t get too excited, kids. This doesn’t mean you’ll never take another standardized test. What’s changing with Wyoming’s plan is who authors that test. Students previously took a test nicknamed PAWS. Starting this year students will take a test nicknamed WY-TOPP.

In a virtual town hall meeting, an educator asked Julie McGee, the director of the WDE’s accountability division, what happens if students don’t score as high on WY-TOPP as they did on PAWS. She responded that scores will not result in punitive action.

“The way that we are trying to structure the plan,” McGee said if the feds approve, “is to make it more informative.” She said, “we’re coming from a place of support, not a place of we are going to shut down the school and fire everybody from the top down, the way people feared under No Child Left Behind.”

What’s also supposed to change with ESSA is how student and school performance data gets shared. A more user-friendly reporting system is promised as a part of the plan, which will help parents and the community compare schools across the state.  

Walt Wilcox, the Chair of the State Board of Education, said teachers are also hungry for easily accessible data that allows them to track student progress. He says without that information, “It’d be the same concept as I pop in the car and I just guesstimate without looking at my gas gauge about when I might run out of gas instead of monitoring that fuel gauge all the way. I take a guess and hope I make it.” 

If you've ever driven in Wyoming, you know that's a bad idea. Wilcox said this data sharing will help facilitate what are called professional learning communities, which he said, “will allow teachers to share what’s working, what’s not working, to share their interventions, their strategies, resources, and materials.”

And how will educators and parents know how Wyoming is stacking up nationally? ESSA will still require schools to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as

The Nation’s Report Card. Superintendent Jillian Balow said under ESSA Wyoming will be able to focus on its own unique set of challenges and goals.

“This is a really exciting time in education,” she said. “It’s certainly exciting to sit in my seat, but it’s also exciting at the local level because we have so many opportunities.”  

After a 45-day public comment period which concluded June 8, the Wyoming Department of Education is preparing its 76-page ESSA blueprint for review by the governor in July. And then onto the U.S. Department of Education for final approval in August.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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