Federal

Caution Flags Raised for Six Waiver States

By Michele McNeil — January 14, 2014 5 min read
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More than a year after the U.S. Department of Education awarded the first No Child Left Behind Act waivers, some states are struggling to intervene in schools with the biggest achievement gaps and ensure that the worst schools implement the right improvement strategies.

That’s according to new, intensive monitoring reports Education Department officials released last week for six states. The reports likely foreshadow implementation challenges facing the 45 states plus the District of Columbia that are remaking their school accountability systems as part of new flexibility offered by the department.

Federal officials found success, but also raised red flags, in each of the states: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, and New York.

But by far the biggest problems, based on the reports, are found in Mississippi and Idaho, which seem to be struggling most with how to help the 15 percent of their schools with the lowest test scores and the largest achievement gaps.

And across states, fixing low-performing schools is an area of great challenge, many education policy experts say.

“That’s the area of most focus right now. It’s hard to move that quickly” to turn around the lowest-performing schools, said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington. “I think states know that there are things they need to do better. They’re working on it.”

However, education policy experts also point out that these reports are limited and don’t—nor can they—paint a complete picture of education-improvement efforts going on in states.

“Policy is very difficult, if not impossible, to capture on a piece of paper,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students. “We’re not responding to actual results for kids.”

‘Not Meeting Expectations’

The monitoring reports detail whether states are making good on the promises they made in their waiver applications—from implementing all the federally required turnaround principles in the lowest-performing schools to supporting teachers who are helping students meet new, common standards.

In some cases, states were criticized for seemingly inconsequential transgressions.

Federal Concerns

New monitoring reports from the U.S. Department of Education for six states with No Child Left Behind Act waivers show federal officials have major concerns about new school accountability systems.

Connecticut: Federal officials criticize the state for not meeting expectations for its lowest-performing priority schools, which are those not in compliance with the department’s School Improvement Federal Grant program. Federal officials want the state to monitor professional development and tests for English-learners. They’re also worried about the state’s plan to not pilot all aspects of its new teacher-evaluation system, including its student-growth measure, for all grades and all subjects.

Colorado: The state needs to improve how school- and district-improvement plans are used to monitor subgroup performance.

Delaware: The state is flagged for failing to have a solid plan to make sure focus schools implement interventions for their most-struggling students and for subgroups of students. Federal officials also cited the state for not requiring its schools and districts, as part of their school-improvement plans, to detail how they will fix their student-performance problem spots.

Idaho: Federal officials said the state did not properly identify its reward schools, is not ensuring all of its priority schools are implementing the federal turnaround principles, and is not requiring its focus schools to target interventions to the neediest students. Also, its school report cards don’t contain all the required data.

Mississippi: The state must revise its plans for how it will support teachers of English-learners, struggling learners, and students with disabilities transition to college- and career-ready standards. Also, the state has not ensured that all priority schools are implementing the federal turnaround principles. Finally, the state has not hired implementation specialists as promised to monitor how focus schools are dealing with large achievement gaps, so the state needs to come up with a plan to better monitor these schools.

New York: The state is not making sure that all priority schools are looking at whether the principal should be replaced, as federal rules require.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

For example, New York is cited for “not meeting expectations” on its reward schools—those that are excelling under their new accountability system—because the state did not put out a press release announcing them and only posted the list of schools on its website.

The findings and any next steps for states are important because in order to get another year of flexibility, states must remain in good standing with the federal agency, Education Department officials said.

The remaining states’ reports should be out over the next four to six weeks. Federal officials visited 12 of the 35 states that were monitored in this round; the rest of the states were queried by phone.

The monitoring reports released Jan. 6 are part of the second-round “Part B” oversight by the federal department, which is designed to look more intensively into how states are implementing their waiver plans and closely examine any issues federal officials are worried about.

The first-round, Part A monitoring done in 2012, was fairly basic, involving phone calls and a checklist of questions. Those included whether states were publishing their lists of low-performing “priority” and “focus” schools, and what strategies states are using to intervene in schools with large achievement gaps. However, in that first round, the Education Department did find some red flags in several states, such as a few that may not have been stressing graduation rates enough in high school accountability.

Four states are on “high-risk” status and in danger of losing their waivers over problems that mostly involve teacher-evaluation implementation woes: Oregon, Washington, Kansas, and Arizona.

Red Flags

The states in this latest, Part B round of monitoring can be considered fairly representative of the problems likely to be uncovered in other states.

Four of the six monitored states—Connecticut, Idaho, New York, and Mississippi—were criticized for not using federally required turnaround strategies in their priority schools, which represent the lowest 5 percent in achievement.

But the extent of the problem in the monitored states, such as how many schools were out of compliance, was not stated in the reports. And that has raised some concerns.

“It’s really worrisome to me that schools have been labeled as priority that may not have been doing the things you are supposed to be doing,” said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, who noted that a key rationale behind the waivers was allowing states to focus more intensively on fewer schools than had been done in the most recent years of the NCLB law."The trade-off is, you identify fewer schools, but the improvements are better. And I think these reports make me question whether the improvements are actually better,” she said.

In Idaho, federal officials said the many priority schools were not implementing the school leadership requirement for turnarounds, which often requires replacement of the school principal.

Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said officials there are examining the report closely.

The ‘Wild West’

Focus schools, which are schools with the largest achievement gaps, seem to be a particular area of concern for federal officials.

In part, that’s because federal rules are less specific. The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools must implement federal turnaround principles, but for focus schools federal officials leave the interventions largely up to states and districts to figure out.

“With focus schools, frankly it’s pretty much the Wild West,” said Ms. Hall of the Education Trust, noting that focus schools often do well overall, but have serious problem spots with small subgroups of students, such as minorities or students with disabilities. “There are steps and strategies that schools can take—looking at who’s teaching whom, the quality of assignments, how time is used. ... It appears those steps aren’t being taken.”

Mississippi, for example, promised in its waiver application that it would use implementation specialists to oversee school improvement in focus schools, but isn’t going to do that. Federal officials now are requiring the state to come up with an alternative that will ensure oversight.

Mississippi education department spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said her state has already submitted its action plan to federal officials and will be able to remedy all of the problems by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. She said the state doesn’t have funding for implementation specialists for focus schools, and instead will develop district capacity to do the work through a series of webinars, regional trainings, and on-site support.

“We do not foresee any problems in complying with the next steps,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Some Waiver States Struggle in Key Areas, Ed. Dept. Says

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