The Future of American Schools is Bright

By: Abby Ragan, Policy Fellow

On April 25, The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute and George W. Bush Institute co-hosted a forum called “Beyond Reading and Math: How to Accelerate Success for Students.” Under the new federal school accountability law, ESSA, states and schools now have the ability to both widen the definition of school accountability and push towards improved school quality and student achievement. The forum featured framing remarks by Jason Botel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Delegated Duties of the Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, and a roundtable. Furthermore, the event publicized the release of a new Hamilton Project strategy paper on ESSA implementation, discussing state strategies for reducing rates of chronic absenteeism and framing the conversation going forwards.

After Mr. Botel grounded the forum’s conversation in student-centered solutions and empowered state innovation, the research authors presented their findings on chronic absenteeism. Theories connecting being physically present in school to better academic outcomes have never been more substantiated, yet NAEP scores show stagnation nationwide and a widening gap between subgroups while about 6.8 million students in the United States missed more than three weeks of school during the 2013- 2014 school year (Attendance Works and Everyone Graduates Center 2017). Further, the research shows that chronic absenteeism is persistent; in other words, schools that experience chronic absenteeism tended to show similarly high rates of such year after year. The District, too, has been battling these same issues for several years.

Federal initiatives combating this issue began in the White House with President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and have expanded into state ESSA plans. 36 states use chronic absenteeism as a “School Quality” or “School Success” measure, but individual school policies on topics such as parent-to-parent communication, two-way texting between parents and teachers, and mailings also have an important role to play.

The roundtable discussion featured Scott Brabrand, superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia; Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer, State Department of Education, Connecticut; Sandra Diodonet, assistant superintendent, Paterson School District, New Jersey; Broderick Johnson, chair, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, Obama Foundation; and Javaid E. Siddiqi, president and CEO, The Hunt Institute. Alyson Klein, assistant editor, Education Week moderated the roundtable.

The roundtable had both praise and criticism for current efforts to move state accountability in the right direction. Ms. Diodonet focused on the need for relationships and commitment on a long-term basis combined with programs like new teacher evaluations, success mentors, attendance review committees, continued dialogue, and most improved attendance awards. Her passion for the issue shined through and got everyone excited about the subject. Some other panelists focused on challenges they have experienced, such as the burden of data collection, cost of resources, enormity of the problem, and disparity between subgroups. Mr. Brabrand spoke of hope for the group, however, when he commented that the historical use of a legal approach to discipline and truancy is shifting to a more social-emotional, restorative justice sense. He believes that this cultural shift goes a long way to fixing the problem, symbolized by the equity policy he helped get passed in Fairfax County Public Schools to ensure equity for every service enacted, including health care.

The District looks forward to implementing best practices from other communities and learning from the research presented today. Under the leadership of individuals like the speakers today and continued research, the future of American schools is bright.

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