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9 California Districts Seek Own NCLB Waiver

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 05, 2013 3 min read
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Nine California school districts last week requested a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act that would set up a radically different school accountability system from the rest of the state and present the biggest political and legal test yet of the U.S. Department of Education’s ability to grant flexibility in exchange for promises to enact certain reforms.

More than 1 million students are represented by the group of districts known as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE—including Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. California failed in its own bid for flexibility late last year.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he is open to district-level waivers, but would prefer to work with states. The department’s current waiver process applies only to states, so just how a district-level waiver process would work remains murky.

“People may think this is a waiver from something, when what it really represents is a significant, deep, and authentic embrace of accountability and responsibility to care for all of these kids,” said Tony Smith, the superintendent of the 37,000-student Oakland school system, which is one of the CORE districts.

The CORE approach to accountability may be the most novel of any of the waiver plans proposed so far. For example, the CORE waiver would not only measure schools on academic measures, it would also judge progress at eliminating disparities in rates of student discipline and absenteeism, among other factors.

The Education Department has already approved waivers for 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Raising Hackles

That Mr. Duncan is even considering district-level waivers has raised hackles in Congress. Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington, warned that the core waiver would “upend 30 years of state-based accountability for schools.”

Under CORE’s accountability plan, schools would be graded across three broad domains: academic, social/emotional, and culture and climate. The districts would set common goals across the three domains that would replace the 100 percent proficiency requirements in the NCLB law.

“We are really asking for much more accountability,” said Rick Miller, the executive director of core.

In the academic category, schools would be judged on how students achieve and grow on math and reading assessments, as well as science and social studies. Graduation rates and persistence rates would also be measured.

Notably, CORE’s plan calls for using only student test scores from a school’s highest grade level to judge whether an entire school is meeting goals for accountability purposes.

In the social/emotional category, schools would be measured on factors such as how they address uneven suspension and expulsion rates and chronic absenteeism, while the culture and climate component would draw heavily on feedback collected in student, parent, and staff-member surveys.

Struggling schools would be paired with a coaching team from a high-performing school with similar demographics for technical assistance and support, and those that don’t improve would undergo a more traditional state intervention, said Michelle Steagall, the chief academic officer of CORE. The districts would also reclaim a collective $109 million in federal Title I money annually that they currently must set aside to pay for transporting students to higher-performing schools or providing them tutors.

The other CORE districts are Clovis, Garden Grove, Sacramento, Sanger, and Santa Ana. Garden Grove joined CORE last month and had not yet signed onto the waiver plan.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as 9 California Districts Seek Own NCLB Waiver

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