Teachers wear many hats. Instructor. Mentor. Advocate. Mystery shopper typically isn’t one of them.

But for this teacher and Stratford City Councilwoman, my past life as a mystery shopper has been instructive and complementary endeavor. It taught me a lot about what I believe in today and reinforced vital lessons, like the value of hard work and persistence, and the importance of strong writing and critical thinking skills.

My covert mission trying and rating products and services around town also taught me things I wasn’t expecting—particularly about the value of an outside perspective. Mystery shopping is straightforward: Provide objective feedback on how companies are performing, so they can grow and improve.

While we don’t have mystery shoppers in education, having an outside perspective is equally, if not more, important. That’s why I was particularly excited to learn about a recent independent peer review of state accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal law that reinforced each state’s responsibility for education policy.

A panel of more than 30 education experts examined the plans submitted so far—including Connecticut’s plan—to the U.S. Department of Education this past April. These reviewers, who were brought together by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success, broke down the wonky aspects of state plans so that educators, parents, and other advocates can have a clear understanding of what states are doing well, and where they needed to improve.

While our state plan was recognized for including more holistic indicators of student achievement in our accountability system —like college-going rates— there is clearly room for improvement.

The state received low ratings in many categories, due to some serious gaps in the way Connecticut is supporting students from poverty, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Additionally, the way the state plans to group information about student performance will allow higher performing groups of student to mask the performance of struggling students—causing possible negative implications for all of our children.

The U.S. Department of Education agrees. Late last month, the Department called Connecticut’s plan “incomplete” and cites the same issues found in the peer review report. Now Connecticut must amend its plan and resubmit to the Department.

This feedback can be sobering, especially after all of the time and energy invested in drafting our ESSA accountability plan. Instead of waving a white flag, though, as an educator and advocate for my students, I see this as an opportunity to grow and do my part to help policymakers and community members understand exactly how and where we need to work together to improve our state’s ESSA plan.

My personal motto is that instead of asking myself “What if?,” I’d rather ask myself “What’s next?” The constructive feedback our state has received from the independent peer review is an opportunity to ask “what’s next” when it comes to learning from other states and continuing to engage stakeholders. Now we have the chance to build a shared vision of success that considers the needs of all of our children. Because of their unique perspective on learning, educators should feel a particular sense of responsibility to ensure that they are part of the plan to put all of Connecticut’s students on a path to success.

Tina Manus is a Connecticut certified high school English teacher and  10th District Councilwoman in Stratford.

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