Published Online: July 8, 2013
Published in Print: July 10, 2013, as Waiver States Split on Ed. Dept. Offer of New Flexibility

NCLB Waiver States Split on New Flexibility Offer

States with waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are almost evenly divided on whether they will take U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan up on his offer of extra time to begin using new teacher-evaluation systems to decide which educators to hire, fire, or promote.

The federal Department of Education has decided to allow states that received waivers by the summer of 2012 to push back the deadline for using their new evaluation systems. Initially, schools were supposed to have those systems fully in place by 2015-16.

Now states can ask to extend that deadline to the 2016-17 school year, which starts just a few months before President Barack Obama leaves office—meaning the administration will likely have little political juice left to enforce the new policy.

Some states have welcomed the extra leeway, which they say will give schools and educators time to get adjusted to the higher expectations of the Common Core State Standards—and, especially, yet-to-be-unveiled assessments being developed to go along with them.

Other states say their efforts to overhaul evaluation already are on track. And a handful of state schools chiefs find the federal department's actions could undermine their education redesign plans.

In making the announcement June 18, Mr. Duncan said he didn't want the leeway to be perceived as a relaxation of accountability for states that have received waiver flexibility under the NCLB law.

Seeking Fresh Flexibility

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has offered states that received No Child Left Behind Act waivers in the first two rounds the opportunity to shift by one year their timeline for tying teacher evaluations to such decisions as firing, promotions, and compensation.

An Education Week survey of the 34 eligible states, plus the District of Columbia, gauged interest in this new flexibility.

"To be very clear, this is not a pause or a moratorium," the secretary said. And he doesn't think every state will take the department up on the added flexibility.

But some state chiefs worry that the Education Department has effectively signaled a go-slow approach on implementing the teacher-evaluation systems. They note that the department had a press call to announce its decision, rather than quietly sending a letter to state chiefs letting them know they could ask for extra time to put their systems in place .

"The manner in which this was executed did put the thumb on the scale in favor of delay," said New Jersey Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf. While he doesn't believe that was Mr. Duncan's intention, "you've got people all across the country who are saying, 'See, even the secretary says you have to slow down.' "

And Hannah Skandera, New Mexico's secretary of education, said in a statement that pushing back the timeline would be the wrong move.

"We are committed to putting kids first," she said of her state. "Delaying the implementation of reforms proven to make a substantial difference for students would be a mistake."

Meanwhile, other states are eager for the breathing room.

"We've got an evaluation plan that's being worked on now, but we think this will be helpful and give us more time to perfect it," said Dale Dennis, the deputy education commissioner in Kansas. "Most of our people agree that we need more time."

Timeline Tinkering

So far, waivers from provisions of the NCLB law have been granted to 39 states and the District of Columbia. Under the newly offered flexibility, states that had applied for their waivers by the summer of 2012—all but five of the 39—would have until the 2016-17 school year to begin using the evaluation systems to decide which teachers are promoted, given bonus pay, receive extra professional help, or are dismissed.

The additional time is intended to give states and educators the opportunity to get used to the assessments aligned with the common standards, which are slated to be rolled out during the 2014-15 school year.

Right now, states have a range of timelines for using the assessments to inform personnel decisions. Delaware, Florida, and Rhode Island, for instance, planned to begin using their systems in the 2012-13 school year, while Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Washington state aimed to get implementation going by 2013-14.

Connecticut, the District of Columbia, and Georgia, among others, had agreed to begin in 2014-15. And other states, including Arkansas and Colorado, were shooting for the 2015-16 school year.

But at least five states already have their teacher evaluations set in state law. That means they couldn't take the Education Department up on its offer without big changes to their own statutes.

The department also is offering states flexibility to avoid "double testing" of students as they begin to test-drive the common-core-aligned assessments.

Under the new flexibility, any state could make a request to the Education Department to use just one test in schools—either a field test designed to help work out the kinks in the new assessment system, or the regular state assessment. State officials pointed out that offering both tests would eat up valuable instructional time and had asked for additional leeway.

Responding to Concerns

The decision to offer flexibility didn't come out of nowhere. Groups representing educators have expressed concerns that the federal department may have been prodding states to move too fast on teacher evaluation, and that the added pressure on educators could hinder implementation of the common-core standards.

The Council of Chief State School Officers recently asked for unspecified flexibility in accountability systems as states make the transition to the new standards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which called for a limited moratorium on the use of the new tests for high-stakes decisions, said she was heartened that the Obama administration appeared to be heeding teachers' concerns.

"There is no shame to a midcourse correction when you have ambitious goals and you see you're not getting there in the timetable you wanted," she said.

The 3 million-member National Education Association, which has been urging some leeway when it comes to using the tests for high-stakes personnel decisions, is happy with the move, the union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, said in an interview.

"This was the culmination of a long, long conversation," he said. "The common-core standards are too important not to do this right."

But on Capitol Hill, both U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, immediately questioned the move. Both lawmakers have expressed big concerns about the waivers in the past.

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"If anyone is looking for further proof that our education system is congested with federal mandates, the education secretary is now granting waivers from waivers," Sen. Alexander said.

Rep. Kline said in a statement that "more waivers and bureaucratic rigamarole can't address the challenges facing our nation's schools."

A Senate GOP aide noted that California's bid for a waiver was rejected by the federal department because the Golden State didn't want to embrace the teacher-evaluation component of the waivers.

"This is outrageous and without any intellectual coherence," said the aide, who requested anonymity. "States that grudgingly submitted [waivers] are now getting relief, but states that took a principled position are still screwed. Every member of the California delegation should be demanding a waiver for California overnight."

Vol. 32, Issue 36, Pages 1,30

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