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Juneau, Arntzen On Replacing 'No Child Left Behind'

School bus.
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Montana’s outgoing Democratic School Superintendent, Denise Juneau describes the Every Student Succeeds Act as a more refined version of No Child Left Behind.";

The federal government this week released its final rules to help states improve their schools and narrow achievement gaps. In November, Montana released its first draft plan explaining how it will comply with those rules.

That means all the pieces are in place to succeed the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, right? Not exactly:

"Voters gave an edict that they wanted a change. We have a brand new administration, and after they have confirmation with the new ed secretary, we’ll see if these regulations are even going to be taking root."

That’s Elsie Arntzen, who was just elected Montana’s next superintendent of public instruction. She’s talking about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, signed into law last year by President Obama. It picks up where No Child Left Behind left off. That’s the plan at least, but there’s a lot we don’t know yet. More on that later.

First, Montana’s outgoing Democratic School Superintendent, Denise Juneau describes ESSA as a more refined version of No Child Left Behind:

"Depending on what happens, there’s going to be some flexibility built in for school districts," Juneau says.

Flexibility is key.

No Child Left Behind’s most vocal critics – and Juneau has been one of them – describe it as a top-down, one-size-fits-all law.

It relied on high stakes, standardized testing.

Schools that did not meet expectations faced possible sanctions.

The new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, still includes elements of standardization:

Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction.
Credit MT OPI
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Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction.

"We are still, as a state, required to give an annual assessment," Juneau says, "but it’s just going to be one point that we’re looking at now. There’s not so much emphasis on it. We’ll see how special education students are doing in the school system. We’ll see how American Indians stack up against white students. We’ll still have all those measurements as part of academic achievement."

States will still be required to identify their lowest performing schools, but new federal rules give them until the 2018-2019 school year to do so.

They can also use custom-built indicators to evaluate their own schools. For example, Montana’s draft ESSA plan proposes to take into consideration something called "school climate":

"So school climate can be, how many opportunities does a student have to be engaged in afterschool activities? Or, do they feel a sense of belonging? Do they feel their teacher’s paying attention to them and is giving them enough help in  the classroom? It more has to do with how does it feel as they navigate the school world and are they getting enough support from the staff who are in those schools."

Juneau’s successor, Elsie Arntzen, sees some value in that "school climate" indicator:

"It is going to be making sure that students can reflect on that they’re in a safe atmosphere where they can learn, but it is about student success, and we’re going to make sure that academics are going to be first and foremost."

Elsie Arntzen is Montana's superintendent of public instruction.
Credit Montana Legislature
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Elsie Arntzen is Montana's newly-elected superintendent of public instruction.

Anrtzen’s poring over the hundreds of pages of the new federal education rules.

Montana’s own 82-page plan was developed by a stakeholders group made up of 36 people including educators, tribal officials and legislators. 

Other than saying she respects all the work that went into the draft, Arntzen’s not yet prepared to offer a detailed analysis of it.

She does, however, say the stakeholder group should have had held more than four meetings to discuss such a complex plan:

"What I want to make sure is Montanans understand that we are working with them," says Arntzen. This Montana plan, I think we need to have a longer look at. I want to honor all the work that’s happened, but different regulations, different president, different ed secretary – and myself — is going to flavor it. So, longer look is what we need to do."

Arntzen might not get the chance to do that — at least not right away. That’s because the state plans to submit the draft to the federal government by the end of this year. Arntzen, the first Republican to serve as Montana’s school superintendent in almost 30 years, takes office in early January.

But no one knows what the Trump administration, or the new Congress, has in store for the Every Student Succeeds Act. Arntzen may yet get a chance to put her stamp on Montana’s draft plan.

Denise Juneau though seems confident that ESSA – as written – is here to stay:

"It was an act of Congress," says Juneau. "It was a bipartisan bill in a Republican Congress. A Trump administration definitely could change it, but we know the wheels of government also move very slowly and it might be a little difficult to unravel."

The public comment period for Montana’s draft education plan ends December 16. Those comments will be reviewed and, if need be, the plan fine-tuned before it gets submitted to the federal government.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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