After years of crafting Maine education policy to meet strict federal rules under No Child Left Behind, state education officials are digging into the details of the new federal education law that reverts much of the decision-making around testing, assessments and teacher evaluations back to the states.

“It’s a really big shift,” said Jaci Holmes, the federal-state legislative liaison at the Maine Department of Education.

Holmes is part of a four-person team leading the effort in Maine to adjust the rules and regulations.

“We’re just beginning to move slowly through it,” Holmes said of the new 1,069-page law. “It’s a thoughtful, slow and steady review of what we have, what’s in the law and what do we want to continue.”

The bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act – or ESSA – was signed into law Dec. 10 by President Obama after Congress approved it in a rare bipartisan effort.

Critics said No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002, was too rigid, with ultimately unattainable goals of 100 percent proficiency of all students under threat of federal sanctions.

Under the new law, most decision-making shifts back to the states. The law still requires annual testing in math and English, and requires states to submit plans for how they will turn around low-performing schools.

But instead of being told how to do that by Washington, state officials, local district officials, and teachers and families can come up with their own plans, officials say.

Maine shouldn’t experience any major changes as a result, but it does trigger a major review and the creation of a new state plan, Holmes said.

“This is not going to change our direction. It’s largely in keeping with our strategic plan,” Holmes said.

Holmes said state officials are still determining what parts of Maine’s education policy will be crafted at the state level, and which elements will be left to local districts.

If a school, for example, has low reading scores for eighth-graders in a particular subgroup, such as Hispanic or economically disadvantaged students, the state may give guidance on what to do, but the district or school may have the autonomy to determine what method it thinks will work to specifically target the problem. A solution, Holmes said, could differ dramatically between a rural school in Aroostook County versus a school in an urban center.

“The (districts and schools) will institute what seems most appropriate,” Holmes said.

That’s welcome news for local teachers and administrators, said Jeanne Crocker, who was a Maine principal when No Child Left Behind took effect and is currently interim superintendent of Portland Public School District.

“It’s incredibly empowering and liberating,” said Crocker, even if it results in extra work at the local level. “It will be more work, but it will be our work.”

NO MAJOR CHANGES EXPECTED

Among the issues local education officials need to work out are what factors they will include in the state plan for measuring student success, aside from the testing mandated by the federal law. Other factors, for example, could be measuring school climate or teacher engagement.

Another major issue will be whether Maine keeps its current rules on teacher evaluation or re-evaluates them.

“This may be an opportunity for thoughtful discussion and a very thoughtful review,” Holmes said.

Maine, along with 41 other states, is already on the path to meeting the new law’s requirements because of work done to get waivers to the No Child Left Behind requirements. As the Obama administration tried to rewrite the education law, it began offering waivers if states set up certain academic standards and turnaround plans for the lowest-performing schools, adopted teacher-evaluation systems that take student achievement into account, and continued monitoring the performance of students along demographic lines.

It won’t result in major changes, Holmes noted. It is too early to know if any possible changes would require legislative action, she said.

Holmes said Maine will continue to operate under its waiver until August 2016, when all waivers nationwide will no longer be in effect. Maine must submit its plan in the next 12 to 18 months and new rules take effect in school districts in the fall of 2017.

In the meantime, Holmes and other Maine education officials already have started holding conference calls with federal liaisons to understand the changes, and will start working with local district officials after the holidays, she said.

‘SO MUCH BETTER FOR KIDS’

Crocker described No Child Left Behind as a “really narrow view” that “diverted” Maine from work that began when the Maine Learning Standards were adopted in 1997.

Those standards, updated over the years and still in effect, spell out requirements in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

But No Child Left Behind only measured English and math scores, which critics said led to “teaching to the test” and less time on other subjects.

“In one fell swoop, the federal government defined student success for us, instead of parents defining it, school communities defining it, (and) a community defining it,” Crocker said.

No Child Left Behind “was one assessment, one score for each child in ELA and one in math. As simple as that,” she said, referring to English Language Arts.

“I don’t know anyone who would say, yes, that is my definition of student success,” Crocker said.

Lily Eskelsen García – president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union – told The Washington Post that the bill’s passage was an “end to our national nightmare and beginning of something so much better for kids.”

Under a Maine law passed in 2012, students in the class of 2018 and those who follow must demonstrate proficiency, or in-depth understanding, in all eight areas outlined in the Maine Learning Results in order to graduate.

Currently, New Hampshire is the only state that already has gone completely to proficiency-based diplomas.