Designing a Coherent System of Accountability Across ESSA and Perkins V

Nov 01, 2018

How Considering ESSA and Perkins V as Complementary Parts of a Larger Accountability System Can Help States be Better Aligned with Both

For the last several years, I have been working with several states developing accountability systems. These systems must meet the federal requirements outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), comply with the requests and priorities defined by stakeholders, and align with the state’s vision for increasing college and career readiness for all students. In fact, the increased attention to career and college readiness is a common high point among states’ ESSA plans. 

The recent passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act continues this focus on outcomes of meaningful postsecondary preparation. States are wrestling with how to address the related and unique requirements of each in a manner that results in a coherent approach to accountability and presents a clear, consistent message to stakeholders about what outcomes are valued.  

My recent brief, “Designing a Coherent State System of Accountability: The Every Student Succeeds Act and Perkins V”, challenges states to consider ESSA and Perkins V−the 5th reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act of 1984−as complementary elements of a larger state system of accountability, and provides ten recommendations to help states design for coherence. The recommendations are categorized in terms of three factors that drive coherence:

  • Clarity around the state’s goal and vision for student learning
  • Consistency across common elements in service to that goal
  • Collaboration across state and local leaders in career and technical education (CTE) and K-12. 

I highlight some of these issues below.

State leaders have worked countless hours to evaluate and model each element of their proposed ESSA accountability system to ensure it provides schools and stakeholders with accurate, useful information about the quality of schools and performance of students. I have supported these efforts by helping states generate comprehensive theories of action that drive the design of their state plans for ESSA accountability. 

Often, these theories of action include the state’s overarching goal for the accountability system, the outcomes representing attainment of that goal, and the hypothesized mechanisms by which desired outcomes will be met. For example an overarching goal might be increasing the number of students who are college- and career-ready. Desired outcomes could include higher graduation rates and more students earning industry credentials. Hypothesized mechanisms may include interactions, systems, data, and initiatives provided and/or promoted by the state.  

In most cases, a state’s theory of action paired with the requirements of ESSA led to the development of a coherent, compliant system of K-12 accountability supported by a clear argument and rationale for each design decision made along the way.     

Perkins V was signed into law in July 2017. This Act reauthorizes the Perkins Act for the first time since 2006. Perkins V seeks to improve the academic, technical and employability of secondary and post-secondary students enrolled in career technical education by improving the design, content and instruction of CTE courses and programs of study. Similar to ESSA, the legislation outlines the responsibilities of states and local agencies receiving federal funds, describes how funds can/should be allocated, and details the required elements of the state’s plan for career technical education. Systems serving secondary CTE concentrators are required to include indicators based on academic achievement and graduation rate, as well as CTE-specific measures of post-secondary success (e.g., enrollment in post-secondary training), and program quality (such as the percentage of students that earned an industry credential or participated in work-based learning).

Both ESSA and Perkins V are intended to support the development and maintenance of programs that ensure students and workers acquire the broad range of skills needed to engage successfully in college and careers. However, these laws have traditionally been addressed in isolation. Through Perkins V, Congress intended to break this tradition, encouraging states to develop a response and state plan aligned with that proposed under ESSA. This encouragement comes in the form of common vocabulary and indicators, an increased emphasis on alignment among CTE and academic content standards, and shared reporting and disaggregation requirements.  In addition, there is significant cross-referencing to ensure that state leaders define and discuss core concepts and requirements in a consistent manner.  

The identification of CTE outcomes as valued measures of college and career readiness under ESSA is a big deal. It identifies the state’s CTE system as a purveyor of programs and services that result in a valid, accepted demonstration of readiness and represents a shared goal and vision for student learning.  Recent policy initiatives suggest that most states believe there are multiple viable pathways to college and career readiness, and consequently a range of measures and demonstrations for quantifying the attainment of this goal, including those associated with CTE. The resounding call to acknowledge multiple pathways can be seen in recent modifications to state graduation requirements, the push to award credit based on competency rather than seat time and, of course, the inclusion of CTE-specific measures within states’ ESSA plans.

Unfortunately, there is little if any guidance provided to help states align their accountability provisions under Perkins V and ESSA in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. Without such guidance, a state’s response to Perkins V will either be designed independent from ESSA, as has traditionally been the case, or written in a manner that demonstrates surface-level alignment at best. A coherent system is one in which the elements work together in a predetermined, complementary manner to achieve a common goal. While consistency is necessary to support coherence, what that means from a design perspective will vary depending on state-specific contextual factors and priorities. State leaders must work together to identify and discuss touch points across ESSA and Perkins V and determine how much consistency is necessary to facilitate progress toward shared and program-specific goals.       

In my paper, I argue that a thoughtful, deliberate state-level theory of action is necessary to ensure shared goals and priorities are accurately and consistently reflected in the plans and initiatives developed by different divisions within a state education agency. While program-specific theories of action, such as those generated for ESSA, provide for within-plan coherence, a state theory of action affords between-plan coherence by providing a common foundation for the system design. It also promotes communication and a shared sense of responsibility across the state agency by requiring a mutually agreed-upon definition of post-secondary readiness and a shared set of strategies for achieving that goal. My full paper provides additional recommendations for states as they work to achieve greater coherence across programs in their state accountability system.