State Boards See Payoff in Stakeholder Engagement

By Abigail Potts

The frequent, consistent call for stakeholder engagement in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is at root a call to advance the interest of students who have been historically underserved. The voices and experiences of families, students, and communities are shaping state ESSA plans and will continue to be instrumental in achieving equity and excellence in education.

State boards have been stepping up: Stakeholder engagement was a major agenda topic for state boards in 2016, according to NASBE’s State Board Insights data. Nearly 550 agenda items referenced strategies to engage diverse stakeholders, gain a deeper understanding of their feedback, and incorporate recommendations into draft plans. State board members took an active role in creating an inclusive, meaningful consultation process for the development of their state plans. States like Illinois and the District of Columbia invited stakeholders to board meeting discussions on ESSA, and board members in Arkansas and Maryland attended listening tours and used what they heard to inform their discussions and policy development.

Several states began their plan development by revising or refocusing existing strategic plans for education. These strategic plans provided a helpful entry point for stakeholders. As early as January 2016, Hawaii’s board of education explored how ESSA should be incorporated into the state’s strategic plan and recognized the first step would be to engage stakeholders. The response from the public was immediate and unprecedented, with long lines for initial public meetings.

Michigan’s vision for the state to be in the Top Ten in Ten Years, which the state board approved in December 2015, became the launching point for its plan. Throughout 2016, Michigan conducted surveys, facilitated external stakeholder action teams and committee meetings, and hosted six regional feedback forums. That feedback improved the plan. For example, groups representing homeless youth, English learners (EL), and neglected and delinquent youth asked that the comprehensive needs assessment required under ESSA reflect their students’ needs. Michigan now requires state and local needs assessments and resulting plans to include specific objectives for ELs, homeless, and neglected and delinquent students to enable them to achieve the content standards expected of all students. Most important, Michigan committed to keeping the conversations going throughout implementation.

By linking stakeholder engagement to ongoing state initiatives, states help ensure that consultation is not a compliance-driven activity but rather a means for developing sound policies. Virginia’s Board of Education led public hearings and stakeholder roundtables in 2016 to elicit feedback on its Profile of a Graduate. Virginia’s work on the Profile of a Graduate laid the foundation for its ESSA plan, even as stakeholder feedback sparked added thought on professional development, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, and adequacy and equity of funding.

Stakeholder engagement is not without its challenges. Not all feedback will be incorporated into an ESSA plan or its implementation. Universal agreement on specific measures or goals is unlikely. Yet states that spent time building broad support for a cohesive vision of education in the state have used this effort to build consensus on core principles, which can be a linchpin for reasoned discussion of diverse and divergent ideas.

Based on NASBE’s review of initial state plans and State Board Insight data from 2017, stakeholder engagement is far from a check-the-box activity. Up to 19 states and the District of Columbia expect to submit ESSA plans on April 3, 2017, and the remainder by September 18, 2017. But they know that a plan is only as good as its implementation. Julie Woods at the Education Commission of the States summed this up well: “Stakeholder engagement helps generate the will and investment necessary to achieve the state’s goals by encouraging everyone involved to own the problems and solutions.”

Abigail Potts is NASBE’s director of college, career, and civic readiness.

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