Latest NCLB Waiver Hopefuls Learned From First Round

By Michele McNeil — March 26, 2012 8 min read
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In the latest round of applications for waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act, states seem to have learned lessons from their predecessors and dodged pitfalls that triggered some big revisions from first-round states.

The second-round group of 26 states, plus the District of Columbia, did a better job explaining how they will help English-learners and special education students succeed. And they are not straying as far from the 2002 law’s original emphasis on holding schools accountable for the performance of small groups of students deemed at risk.

Yet the new applicants still have a lot of work to do to create new and more sophisticated accountability systems, an Education Week analysis of their applications suggests.

Only nine of the states have met all the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for implementing statewide teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student performance—a federal requirement to obtain, and keep, a waiver. Fewer than half are incorporating subjects other than math and reading into their accountability systems, despite general criticism that the NCLB law narrowed the curriculum in favor of those two subjects at the expense of others.

The Education Department already has approved waivers for 11 first-round states that give them considerable flexibility to design and implement their own vastly different and complex accountability systems. The department is expected to make its decisions for the second round later this spring; in the first round, all states that applied were awarded the flexibility.

With the 27 new applications in the pipeline, and five more states expected to apply in September in the third round, the vast majority of states will likely end up ditching the law’s adequate yearly progress yardstick by year’s end, forgoing universal consequences such as tutoring and public school choice, and giving up on the out-of-reach goal that all students should be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Offered to Districts

Now, the Education Department is aiming to expand such flexibility to districts or groups of districts in states that choose not to seek a waiver. Some large states, including California and Texas, could be among those sitting out the process.

Although the department believes changes to accountability are best accomplished and leveraged at the state level, a top agency official, Michael Yudin, said in an interview that “there are some very strong districts that want to move forward.”

Mr. Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for the department’s office of elementary and secondary education, said the department is still working on what a district-level waiver would look like, and how to manage the process. But so as to not undermine the states that will seek waiver in September, the department won’t announce any firm details until then.

Coveted Leeway

For now, the waivers are available only to states, and come as Congress continues to drag its feet in rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is the NCLB law. The flexibility is good through the 2013-14 school year, although U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he would revoke a waiver at any time if a state failed to make good on its promises.

Round-Two Waiver Bids: Outlines Detailed

Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia are seeking flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act in the latest round of proposals. The U.S. Department of Education has already approved 11 states’ applications. To win approval, a state had to address a number of factors.


SOURCES: Education Week; State Applications

States and federal officials struggled in round one over how to ensure the success of at-risk students, especially those with disabilities and English-learners.

The outside peer reviewers who helped judge the applications criticized the first 11 states for failing to explain how they would make sure students in special education and English-learners have access to rigorous coursework preparing them for common academic standards, and how their teachers would get the professional development and evaluations they need.

States revised those sections before winning their waivers in February.

Most second-round applications include expansive sections that specifically address those two populations, although most advocacy groups are still digging through the thousands of pages of documents to figure out whether the words are merely filler or substantive plans to help those students.

States also seemed to get the message on accountability for specific student subgroups.

While the NCLB law emphasized holding schools accountable for subgroups of at-risk students—a part of the original law that has generally been praised—such an emphasis came with significant drawbacks.

Many schools escaped such accountability because those subgroups were so small that they didn’t count. Other schools were penalized because a single subgroup of students failed to meet academic targets, even though all other students were hitting the mark.

‘Super-Subgroup’ Issue

In the first round of approved applications, seven of the 11 states chose to solve those problems by introducing new “super-subgroups” that combined smaller groups into a larger cluster of at-risk students. But many civil rights groups feared that approach would mask the performance of a particular group, such as students with disabilities.

Reviewing the Requests

The U.S. Department of Education has selected 42 peer reviewers who will vet the 27 second-round applications submitted for flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act.

  • Karla Baehr, a project lead for educator evaluation implementation at the Massachusetts Department of Education
  • Robert Balfanz, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University
  • Alice Johnson Cain, the national director of policy for Teach Plus
  • Dale Carlson, an educational consultant
  • Lizanne DeStefano, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the director of Illinois STEM Education Initiative
  • Judy Elliott, an educational consultant
  • Janet Filbin, the director of student achievement for the Hope Learning Academy Charter System in Douglas County (Colo.) Public Schools
  • Jacquelyn Jackson Fleming, the president/owner of LifeLearn Associates
  • Drew Furedi, the executive director in the office of talent management for the Los Angeles Unified School District
  • Laura Goe, a research scientist at Educational Testing Service
  • Christina Hall, a co-founder/co-director at the Urban Teacher Center
  • Susan Hanes, a technical advisor for the Center on Innovation and Improvement
  • Ulcca Hansen, a vice president for the Public Education and Business Association
  • Kathryn Hebda, the deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida Department of Education
  • Thomas Hehir, a professor in the graduate school of education at Harvard University
  • Sara Heyburn, a policy advisor for the Tennessee Department of Education
  • Dalia Hochman, an educational consultant
  • Lynn Holdheide, a special education research associate at Vanderbilt University’s National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality
  • C. Thomas Kerins, an adjunct professor in research design and program evaluation at the University of Illinois at Springfield
  • Deborah Larkin, the state Title II/Part A director in the office of teacher effectiveness at the South Carolina Department of Education
  • Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate at the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes
  • Elise Leak, an educational consultant
  • James Liebman, a professor and the director of Columbia University’s Columbia Center for Public Research and Leadership
  • David Lussier, the executive director in the office of educator quality at the Austin (Texas) Independent School District
  • Margaret MacKinnon, the Title I/ESEA administrator for the Alaska Department of Education
  • Brud Maxcy, an educational consultant
  • Margaret McLaughlin, a professor and the associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Education at the University of Maryland
  • Barbara Medina, the director of English language acquisition for Denver Public Schools
  • Angela Minnici, a principal research scientist at the American Institutes for Research
  • Jane Montes, an educational consultant
  • Sydney Morris, a co-founder/co-CEO for the Educators for Excellence
  • Arun Ramanathan, the executive director for the Education Trust, West
  • Lauren Rhim, the president/CEO of LMR Consulting
  • Veronica Rivera, of counsel for Akers & Boulware-Wells
  • Edward Roeber, an adjunct professor in the college of education at Michigan State University
  • Aleksandr Shneyderman, the director of assessment, research and data analysis for Miami-Dade County Public Schools
  • William Slotnik, the executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center
  • Evan Stone, a co-founder/co-CEO for Educators for Excellence
  • Gabriela Uro, a manager of English language learner policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools
  • Richard Wenning, the president of RJW Advisors
  • Adriane Williams, an assistant professor in the College of Human Resources and Education at West Virginia University
  • Diane Zendejas, an educational consultant

Although the Education Department required states to keep an emphasis on individual subgroups, the new “super” groups are still prominent in the accountability systems in those seven first-round states.

This time around, the super-subgroup approach wasn’t as popular. Many states proposed sticking with the traditional NCLB subgroups, but many lowered the number of students—or “n size"—needed for that group of students to count in the accountability system. Connecticut, for example, is lowering its n-size to 20 from 40.

Others, such as Illinois, are trying to strike a balance. The state is keeping traditional NCLB subgroups and requiring schools to ensure those groups hit new, customized yearly academic targets. But its main accountability “index” will factor in these groups: racial and ethnic minorities, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students. Its n-size for those groups is being lowered from 45 to 30.

When it ran the numbers, the state discovered that 200 schools still didn’t have enough students in each subgroup to really count. Only then would the subgroups be combined into a super-subgroup of all at-risk students, said Monique M. Chism, a division administrator for innovation and improvement with the Illinois state board of education.

“The focus on disaggregation of data, ... we didn’t want to lose that,” Ms. Chism said, adding that Illinois officials took note of the first-round applicants’ use of super-subgroups.

“There were some states that had done a responsible job of thinking through the issue, but there were other states that while [their approach] may work for them, for our state, it would be masking performance,” Ms. Chism said. “And there are things that we didn’t want to mask.”

At least two other second-round states—Nevada and Wisconsin—also are taking that compromise approach, using a super-subgroup only when n-sizes can’t be met.

As in the first round, the 27 new applicants are proposing complicated ways of grading or holding schools accountable, using multiple factors.

While test scores and student academic growth are the standard measures, North Carolina factors in a graduation project; Vermont includes kindergarten-readiness results; and South Dakota plans to incorporate a school’s percentage of effective teachers.

Virginia is one of the only states using its school accreditation processes as its primary accountability mechanism.

Fifteen of the 27 states are relying only on tests in reading and mathematics for accountability purposes, a higher proportion than in round one, when four of the 11 stuck with those two subjects that are at the center of the NCLB system.

That isn’t to say states don’t test students in other subjects; they’re just incorporating only reading and math into their grading systems. The continued emphasis on the two subjects by many applicants contrasts with frequent criticism from policy experts and on-the-ground educators that NCLB’s reading and math focus has come at the expense of other subjects.

However, states generally are moving to expand beyond just reading and math—with an eye toward making sure any new subjects added reflect college- and career-readiness standards, said Kirsten Taylor, a senior program associate with the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“It’s the important distinction between what you are holding your schools accountable for and the direction you’re moving,” she said. “States are sticking with where they have assessments now, but are starting conversations ... about what do we think it means to be college- and career-ready in those additional subjects.”

Legislation Needed

This second group of waiver hopefuls has much more work to do in another area as well: holding teachers and principals accountable.

Two-thirds of states need to pass laws or issue rules and regulations to meet the requirements of the waiver policy, which include adopting statewide guidelines for principal- and teacher-evaluation systems that are based in part on student academic growth and used for “personnel decisions.” Those systems must be piloted in some districts or schools in the 2013-14 school year.

If states want their waivers extended by a year, they must take those systems statewide in 2014-15.

“There’s definitely a question of resources and of capacity,” said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, in Washington. “To think all states will be able to pull this off well in a short time period is very optimistic.”

On the teacher-evaluation front, the District of Columbia is taking a unique approach: It wants to exempt any charter school that is not in the bottom 5 percent based on student performance, or among the 10 percent that are “focus schools” because of achievement gaps, from adhering to any new teacher-evaluation guidelines. (In the nation’s capital, charters are managed by a separate charter school board outside the regular public school system.)

Under the federal Education Department’s waiver requirements, however, states must operate those evaluation systems statewide.

The District of Columbia’s office of the state superintendent of education did not respond to a request for comment.

But Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the issue illustrates the tension surrounding efforts to push a one-size-fits-all system to evaluating teachers.

“Ensuring that charters preserve autonomy over teacher evaluations in the face of these statewide system overhauls has been an increasing challenge across the country,” he said. “Some state policymakers ... either overlook or don’t care about preserving charter autonomy over these decisions in the process.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Waiver Applicants Steer Wary Course


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