Education Funding

Latest Waiver Move Could Weaken Key Obama Priority

By Lauren Camera — August 22, 2014 5 min read
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The decision by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to let states operating under No Child Left Behind Act waivers delay tying student test scores to teacher evaluations potentially uproots one of the administration’s biggest education policy priorities.

Giving states incentives to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems that take into account, among other things, student test scores, is at the center of both the waiver offering and Race to the Top, the administration’s signature competitive-grant program.

But at the Jefferson Academy Middle School here this week, Mr. Duncan told a group of about 100 teachers and principals that he had fielded repeated complaints from the education community that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for student test scores while states are also performing the difficult task of transitioning to new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

“This can cause some real anxiety and trepidation [among teachers],” said Mr. Duncan. “Not worrying that that’s a part of their evaluation this year makes some common sense, and if states want to talk to us about that, we’re open for business.”

As a result, he said, states can now request a delay in the deadline for using student test results in teacher evaluations. While Mr. Duncan said he expects most states to propose a one-year postponement, pushing the deadline to the 2015-16 school year, he did not close the door to states asking for more than that. Either way, Mr. Duncan and the Obama administration will remain in office for only a few months after any such delay. And that doesn’t give the policy time to take hold before a new administration—which could reverse the waiver initiative entirely—takes over.

“Whether these evaluation systems are fully implemented and really take root in states won’t be up to Secretary Duncan,” said Anne Hyslop, recently an education policy analyst for the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan thank-tank in Washington, who now works at Bellwether Education Partners. “Another administration could come in and change course. If you think about the original vision of the waiver policy, … that’s not going to happen by the end of this administration in most places.”

Making It Official

Though Mr. Duncan’s Aug. 21 announcement makes the added flexibility official, this is something the department has been building up to for a few months.

In May, Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, acknowledged in a letter to chief state school officers that some states need to alter their proposed evaluation systems and timelines. Since then, the department has been collecting feedback from states about what additional flexibility and support it could provide while still holding states accountable for the commitments they made to get waivers from provisions of the NCLB law.

In June, the District of Columbia school system became the first waiver recipient to decide that it wasn’t going to use a “value added” test-score-based algorithm for measuring teacher effectiveness for the 2014-15 school year as it makes its transition to new tests aligned with the common core. The U.S. Department of Education didn’t cheer the move, but also didn’t say that the delay put the district’s waiver in jeopardy.

After that, the department began granting waiver extensions to states that have the authority to implement teacher-evaluation systems that meet the federal parameters, but need to make changes in a few “targeted areas,” including timelines.

Despite being warned by the department in June that it could lose nearly $300 million of its Race to the Top funds if it followed through on a proposal to delay incorporating test scores from common-core-aligned exams in its teacher-evaluation system, New York secured a waiver extension. The department also said the Empire State is on track for consideration of a longer waiver-renewal period come spring of 2015.

South Carolina and Delaware, which are still hammering out changes to their evaluation systems, continued the trend.

This week’s official announcement is also part of a larger effort by the administration to work more closely with teachers.

“No teacher, no school, no district should ever be defined by a single test score,” Mr. Duncan said. “I don’t think anybody is actually doing that, but I want to be clear that we know there’s so much that tests don’t measure.”

Leaving the Door Open

Mr. Duncan seemed to leave the door open for states hoping to score additional wiggle room from other parts of their waiver commitments.

“We will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well,” he wrote in a department blog post explaining his teacher-evaluation decision.

The American Federation of Teachers did not overlook that phrasing, and its president, Randi Weingarten, made a pitch to also do away with the annual testing requirement.

“We shouldn’t be testing every child, every year,” she said in a statement after cheering the administration’s latest flexibility decision. “We need assessments that meaningfully measure student learning. And we need a new accountability system that moves from a test-and-punish model to a support-and-improve model.”

In general, education stakeholders applauded Mr. Duncan’s decision.

“Allowing for more time and flexibility to ensure fair educator evaluations based on the new student assessments shows a willingness to listen and learn from parents, teachers, and students,” said Carmel Martin, the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress. Ms. Martin previously served in the Education Department as the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, and helped craft the administration’s education agenda, including its stance on teacher evaluation.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, agreed.

“States and big-city school districts are working hard to implement significant changes in standards, assessments, and evaluations that are taking place nationwide, and additional time to implement those changes and reforms effectively is welcome,” he said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Latest Waiver Move Could Weaken Key Obama Priority

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