Federal

NCLB Waiver-Renewal Process Turns Up Heat on States

By Michele McNeil — September 10, 2013 6 min read
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Two years after offering states waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education is expecting them to up the ante on teacher quality if they want another two years of flexibility.

Barring a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the official name for the federal school accountability law that is languishing in Congress, this waiver-renewal process may mark the last opportunity for the Obama administration to put its stamp on the ESEA and shape a future law. All but a handful of states are operating with sweeping flexibility to chart their own school accountability course.

Response to the new federal guidance, issued Aug. 28, has been all over the map. Civil rights groups are pleased that the department is trying to beef up subgroup accountability in a second round of federal review but argue that those steps didn’t go far enough. Some members of Congress opposed to even more requirements being attached to the waivers are reaffirming their commitment to rewriting the NCLB law. And many education policy experts wonder just how tough the Education Department will get with states during the renewal process.

“The big question ... is how will the department determine whether each state’s implementation is faithful and strong enough to warrant renewal?” asked Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners in Washington. “The department now finds itself in a very tricky situation: hold states’ feet to the fire on rigorous implementation and run the risk of being seen as heavy-handed [or] allow states to slide by and raise the ire of those who say meaningful accountability has been gutted.”

To get a two-year extension of their waivers, states must reaffirm their commitment to college- and career-ready standards and tests, and to implementing differentiated accountability systems that focus on closing achievement gaps.

States getting a waiver renewal must also continue implementing new teacher-evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year—but the waiver renewals would take that requirement a step further. States must, by October 2015, use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their peers. Teacher distribution is a very important issue to civil rights groups.

Taking Another Lap

The U.S. Department of Education has released new rules that states must follow if they want to renew their No Child Left Behind Act waivers for another two years.

College- and Career-Ready Standards and Tests

  • States must show how they are implementing such standards by the start of the 2013-14 school year.
  • Standards for English-language proficiency must be adopted by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Tests aligned to those new standards must follow.
  • States must demonstrate they are prepared to give tests aligned to these standards by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year either by participating in a common testing consortia or by providing their own testing plans.
  • States will no longer be allowed to give tests based on modified academic standards (shorthanded as 2 percent tests) to students with disabilities.

Teacher Quality

  • Title II funds for professional development must be aligned with preparing teachers to teach to college- and career-ready standards and must be based on evidence. Professional development must also be aligned with a “local needs assessment” and derived from educator data such as surveys.
  • States must provide a detailed timeline for how they will implement new teacher-evaluation systems tied to student growth by the 2014-15 school year and used to inform personnel decisions by 2016-17.
  • By October 2015, states must begin implementing a plan to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by inexperienced or ineffective teachers at higher rates than their peers.

Low-Performing Schools and Achievement Gaps

  • States must detail long-term plans for turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools, known as “priority” schools, and the 10 percent deemed “focus” schools because of large achievement gaps or very low graduation rates. States must also detail how they will increase the rigor of interventions for schools that have failed to graduate out of their “priority” or focus status.
  • States must develop a clear plan for intervening in schools where at least one subgroup of at-risk students has failed to meet its annual testing target.
  • States must develop a plan for holding districts accountable for turning around persistently low-performing schools.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The new guidance “reflects some learning from the past two years and does try to step into the gaps that have been identified,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust in Washington.

But it’s an open question as to how tough the federal department will be in requiring states make sure poor and minority students don’t get more than their share of ineffective teachers. A failure to do so would be “just kicking the can down the road a couple more years when we know access to highly effective teachers really matters,” she said.

Broad Impact

So far, 41 states, the District of Columbia, and a group of eight districts in California have flexibility waivers under the NCLB law. Thirty-five of those waivers were approved in the first two rounds, which means their flexibility expires at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Those 35 will be the first to go through the renewal process.

Renewal applications will be accepted in three phases, beginning Jan. 2 and ending Feb. 21. The renewal applications will be judged internally, and not turned over to outside peer reviewers, department officials said during a press briefing last month.

“We want to be sure to provide states with the flexibility they need to continue to implement their reform efforts,” said Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, during the press call. But, she added, “We want to ensure states continue to meet a high bar.”

To that end, under a renewal, states and districts must improve the use of federal Title II funds for professional development, with a requirement that districts spend the money on “evidence-based” programs and link them to new college- and career-ready standards. “Evidence-based” is not defined.

District Accountability

In addition to the new requirements on teacher quality, the waivers wade further into one other new territory: district-level accountability. The district role in intervening in low-performing schools has been identified by some as a weakness in federal frameworks, and so the waiver-renewal process requires states to develop a “high-quality plan” for holding districts accountable for their efforts in turning around struggling schools.

The department is in the process of analyzing data in all waiver states to confirm that schools and subgroups are being properly identified and supported under state accountability systems. Those results will be used as part of the renewal process, and federal officials are saying they may make states change their accountability systems if flaws are found.

Federal officials are also forewarning that this is the only waiver renewal that will give states a free pass on student outcomes.

“After only a year and a half of implementation, it is too early to use student outcomes in making renewal decisions,” the guidance says, “however the department anticipates that any future extension of these waivers will be outcomes-driven, based primarily on whether or not [a state] has improved student achievement and made progress towards closing achievement gaps.”

But it’s unclear just how much weight is behind that warning. The first round of renewals will expire at the end of the 2015-16 school year, by which time the Obama administration will be in its twilight.

Among members of Congress, the waiver-renewal process just rubs salt into the wound over the fact that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued such sweeping waivers in the first place.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee, rekindled his criticism that the Education Department is becoming a national school board. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate education committee chairman, reiterated his call to put a reauthorization of the bill on the floor of the Senate this fall. “This new phase of extending existing waiver agreements is an urgent reminder that Congress must act,” he said.

Questions Raised

Among education policy experts, the waiver-renewal process raises more questions than answers.

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation, has been closely tracking the waivers, and said the department is pretty much staying the course here. “I think at the end of the day we are going to see every state get a waiver renewal,” said Ms. Hyslop, noting that it’s far easier for the department to effect change by working with states than by revoking their waivers.

The Council of Chief State School Officers will be watching how federal officials work with states on the shift that’s going on in accountability and evaluation systems as states work to identify highly effective teachers, and not just “highly qualified” teachers as required under the original NCLB Act.

Requiring states to examine where their most-effective, and least-effective, teachers are teaching and potentially reassigning them is an important next step, said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the CCSSO.

“It’s not an illogical step. How it’s interpreted and implemented are big questions,” she said.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday said that while the renewal will definitely create more paperwork, the larger issues of teacher quality and differentiated accountability are already being worked on.

“Our trouble is we identify too many schools for intervention. Our most difficult challenge is to differentiate the level of support the state provides to districts and schools,” he said.

The state is on track to implement a new teacher-evaluation system tied to student growth in 2014-15, which will pave the way for meeting the October 2015 deadline for using those results to examine teacher distribution, he said.

And to people who continue to complain about the federal involvement in school accountability, he said, “If Congress could do its job and reauthorize the law, this would all go away.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as States Face New Hoops On Leeway

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