California Districts Make Bid for NCLB Waiver

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 28, 2013 7 min read
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Nine California school districts today will seek 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 Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, and San Francisco. If the districts’ waiver proposal gets a green light, it would amount to a major breakaway from California, which failed in its own bid for flexibility late last year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he is open to considering district-level waivers, but has emphasized a preference to work with states. The department’s 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. “We’re not trying to show anybody up.”

The CORE approach to accountability may be the most novel of any of the waiver plans crafted by states. For example, the CORE waiver would not only measure how schools are doing on academic measures, it would also judge their 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 and a few more states—Pennslyvania is one—are expected to turn in their applications today.

The notion that Duncan is even considering district-level waivers has already raised hackles in Congress, even though the NCLB law does allow for waivers directly to districts. But states are supposed to review and sign off on a district’s request, a step that doesn’t appear likely in the case of the CORE proposal. Tom Torlakson, California’s state schools chief, has expressed concerns over how two different systems of school accountability would work, and so far, Gov. Jerry Brown has not publicly endorsed the waiver plan.

Plan’s Broad Reach

Under’s CORE’s accountability plan, schools and their districts would be graded across three broad domains: academic, social/emotional, and culture and climate. Over the coming months, the districts will develop specific performance targets, or annual measurable objectives, across the three domains that would replace the 100-percent proficiency requirements in NCLB.

“We have a shared agreement that we have to get all kids ready for college and careers and that really drives the accountability system, but at the same time, we know there are more factors beyond achievement that matter,” said Rick Miller, the executive director for CORE and a former deputy superintendent in the California education department. “We are really asking for much more accountability.”

In the academic category, schools would be judged on how well students achieve and grow in their performance on math and reading assessments, as well as science and social studies. Factors such as graduation rates and persistence rates—particularly in that critical transition period from middle to high school—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 a K-5 elementary school, for example, only the 5th grade test scores would be used for accountability, making testing at other grade levels diagnostic, an idea adopted in part from the school system in Ontario, Canada, Miller said.

“You should still assess at the other levels, but there would be no sanctions,” he said.

In the social/emotional category, schools would be measured on how well they address uneven suspension and expulsion rates, deal with chronic absenteeism, and build up noncognitive skills such as grit and resilience in students. The third accountability component, culture and climate, would draw heavily on feedback collected in student, parent, and staff member surveys to grade schools and districts and measure how well schools meet the needs of special education students and long-term English-language learners.

How much weight each of the three domains would receive is not yet a settled question, but the academic domain would be the most heavily weighted, Miller said. And absent a state education agency to review data and determine whether schools and districts have met goals set by the CORE districts, a “third party aggregator” would serve in that role, he said.

CORE districts would break down schools’ performance across all domains using the student subgroups required by California, which are finer-grained than what is required by NCLB. Under the waiver plan, the districts would also have to collect and share additional data points such as participation and test scores for Advanced Placement classes and early-childhood indicators, Miller said.

Sanctions for schools and districts that don’t meet the growth goals agreed to by the CORE districts would not look at all like they currently do under NCLB. Chiefly, the requirement for underperforming schools to set aside 20 percent of their federal Title I money to pay for transporting students to higher-performing schools or providing them tutors would disappear.

Across the CORE districts, reclaiming those Title I dollars would add up to $109 million a year, said Michelle Steagall, the chief academic officer for CORE.

“Rather than forcing schools to spend those dollars on unproven providers, we can free up the resources to have schools working together to find the answers for raising student achievement,” she said.

Under the CORE waiver plan, struggling schools would be paired with a coaching team from a high-performing school with similar demographics. That team would provide technical assistance and support, and if the schools don’t improve under those interventions, they would have to move onto a more traditional state intervention, Steagall said.

Each of the CORE districts is already moving ahead with redesigning their teacher evaluation systems to include some measures of student achievement and would continue to do so under the waiver plan to meet the federal Education Department’s required timeline.

A spokesman for the federal Education Department did not comment on the specifics of the CORE waiver plan. Miller, however, said that conversations with officials in the department gave them reason to believe that their proposal will get a serious look. The superintendents from Los Angeles, Fresno, Long Beach, and San Francisco met with Duncan and senior staff members as recently as last week to discuss the waiver.

But one education analyst cautioned that the Education Department would open a “Pandora’s box” if it were to grant the CORE waiver.

“It would upend 30 years of state-based accountability for schools,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington and a former deputy commissioner in the New Jersey department of education.

Smarick, who also worked in the federal education department under President George W. Bush, said the districts deserve credit for trying to forge ahead of the rest of the state, but he expressed doubts about whether CORE’s proposed accountability system would be rigorous enough.

“I think there is a reason to talk about how the next generation of accountability systems should take many factors into account, but inputs like school culture often can mask glaring deficiencies in student achievement,” he said.

Before the coalition of 10 districts began its quest for a flexibility waiver, most were already working across districts to collaborate on preparing teachers for the Common Core State Standards and accelerate the timeline set by the state to roll out the standards into classrooms.

The group began forming more than two years ago as a convening of the superintendents and their senior staff members to help state officials write a second Race to the Top application for California. That application, like the state’s first, was unsuccessful, but it set a reform agenda that the districts’ leaders wanted to keep pursuing: crafting formative assessments and other resources for teachers to use with the new common standards and revamping evaluations for teachers and administrators.

The other CORE districts are Sacramento, Clovis, Sanger, Santa Ana and Garden Grove. Garden Grove, which just joined CORE last month, did not join the other districts today in submitting a waiver request.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.