Federal

Ed. Dept. Gears Up to Oversee NCLB Waivers

By Michele McNeil — August 28, 2012 5 min read
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Now that more than half the country is operating with waivers of key mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education must turn to overseeing a hodgepodge of 34 different state accountability systems and holding states to the promises they made to win the new flexibility.

As the school year begins, states are preparing to provide their first evidence that they are implementing their plans as proposed—and are already asking federal officials if they can tweak their proposals.

For its part, the Education Department is gearing up to manage a new portfolio of states that have adopted vastly different grading systems, diverse ways of tracking the achievement of small groups of students deemed academically at risk, and new ways of evaluating teachers. Gone, for the most part, is a one-size-fits-all accountability law.

At the federal level, “there are big management challenges to doing this right,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. “If we’re going to learn the lessons of this new state flexibility, the federal government is going to have to monitor it carefully and do deep analysis. My concern, very frankly, is they don’t have enough resources devoted to it.”

Education Department officials say they recognize the challenge but are prepared.

“We’re rethinking the way government works,” said department spokesman Justin Hamilton. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “has made it a priority to expand our technical-assistance capacity and to create communities of best practice. We want to give states the flexibility to innovate while holding them to a high bar of accountability.”

Keeping Watch

The U.S. Department of Education is taking the first steps toward monitoring the states that have received waivers of parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. Through October, the department will hold in-depth telephone calls and require evidence of state progress in key areas:

• Identifying “priority,” “focus,” and “reward” schools and making those lists public.

• Implementing turnaround principles in priority schools.

• Implementing interventions in focus schools.

• Providing incentives and supports for other Title I schools.

• Monitoring school districts’ interventions in priority and focus schools.

• Supervising districts’ use of Title I funds under the new flexibility.

• Conducting outreach to districts regarding waiver implementation.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

The additional burden comes as the department continues to monitor the waning stages of the $100 billion in additional education aid that came from the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package, including high-profile grants such as the $4 billion Race to the Top awards. What’s more, the department is considering a new waiver program just for school districts in states that do not get a state-level waiver, which would only add to the workload.

So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia have won flexibility on key provisions of the NCLB law, including that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Instead, states had to propose their own accountability systems, set their own student-achievement goals, identify struggling schools, and create evaluation systems for teachers and building leaders.

Short-Term Fix

The waivers, considered a short-term solution, come as Congress continues to make little progress in rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The decade-old No Child Left Behind law is the current version of the ESEA.

The bulk of the waiver oversight will fall to the federal department’s office of elementary and secondary education, which is led by new Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle, a former Ohio state education chief. But department officials say they will draw on staff members from other program areas—such as special education, civil rights, and the Race to the Top—to keep tabs on states.

In fact, the Education Department expects to attack the monitoring of waiver states as it did with the Race to the Top: Teams of federal staff members will serve as liaisons to the states, with an emphasis on technical assistance and collaboration among states, rather than just compliance.

By Oct. 15, the department expects to have completed the first step in monitoring: a 90-minute check-in conference call with each state to determine its progress in major areas, particularly in identifying low-performing “focus” and “priority” schools and designing interventions for them. Federal officials also want states to discuss their vision for education reform, and what success will look like three years from now.

States will have to submit evidence that they’ve completed certain tasks, such as creating procedures to monitor how districts are intervening in low-performing schools.

The department will develop a report for each state based on this first round of monitoring. The reports will be made public, although the details of exactly what will be disclosed—and when—haven’t been worked out yet, officials said.

Such “desk monitoring,” as the department calls it, will continue through at least next spring, when federal officials may then ramp up their monitoring by visiting each state to check in on progress. If and when it’s time to renew waivers at the end of the 2013-14 school year, the department will take a hard look at whether student achievement has improved. (If Congress reauthorizes the ESEA in the meantime, such renewals won’t be necessary.)

Because that monitoring will replace current NCLB compliance efforts, department officials say they don’t expect to create more work for states—just a different kind of work.

But even though the waivers come with considerable monitoring requirements, states will likely still embrace the new flexibility, said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington.

“I do think receiving a waiver is a huge milestone for a lot of states, and I get a feeling states will stick with it,” he said. “But I hope this is not for more than a year or two, because we’re going to work pretty hard to get the law changed next year.”

‘Guessing Game’

For states, even though there is new guidance on monitoring procedures from the Education Department, big questions about what federal officials will be looking for remain.

“It’s a little bit of a guessing game. This is all a new frontier for us,” said Georgia state schools Superintendent John Barge, whose state is working with the federal department on its Race to the Top grant.

What’s more, state education chiefs are hoping the department will be understanding when states need to make changes to their waiver plans, he added.

“We really want them to maintain that flexibility with us as we implement our systems,” Mr. Barge said. “No state is trying to get around accountability.”

In fact, the federal Education Department is anticipating that states will need to make changes to their waiver plans, and it has set up a formal amendment process that’s similar to how states make changes to their Race to the Top proposals. States, for example, will have to amend their plans if laws or policies are enacted that affect their progress, or if they can’t fulfill their promises.

Department officials said requests for minor changes are already trickling in. (Oklahoma secured the first approved amendment after sending in its final rules for implementing its new A-F school grading system.)

What will not be allowed are changes to timelines that would delay implementation of a state’s flexibility plans, according to the department.

“We’ll work with every state to help them carry out their plans,” Mr. Hamilton, the department spokesman, said. “Ultimately, if we feel like a state is backtracking, they could lose their waiver.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Gears Up to Manage NCLB Waiver Oversight

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