Rewards for Schools Key Facet of NCLB Waivers

By Alyson Klein — May 06, 2013 7 min read
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One of the chief complaints about the No Child Left Behind Act has been that districts and schools that fail to meet achievement targets face serious sanctions, while schools that do a good job of closing the gaps between traditionally overlooked groups of students and their peers essentially get little in return.

To help alleviate those concerns, the U.S. Department of Education asked states to identify so-called “reward schools” in their applications for waivers easing demands of the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress has yet to revise. States had to include not only high fliers—schools with consistently high student achievement—but also schools making significant progress with groups of students who had often struggled in the past.

So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have been approved for the NCLB flexibility. In their applications, states came up with a wide range of criteria for defining reward schools, one of three categories based on school performance, along with a broad array of ideas for giving those schools something extra for their efforts.

In some cases, the states, including New Jersey, are not allowing schools that are part of the “focus” category—schools singled out because of their difficulty in closing achievements gaps—to make the rewards list. But other states, such as Kentucky, are allowing “focus” and even “priority” schools—the lowest-performing category—to receive the distinction, if they make significant progress. And some states, such as Tennessee, are allowing rewards both for schools that are eligible for Title I aid for disadvantaged students and for those that do not have predominantly high-poverty populations.

Bonus Size Varies

The size of the potential bonuses also varies. For instance, reward schools in New York could get the chance to compete for grants of up to $100,000 to be used to help share promising practices, according to the state’s application. And in Delaware, up to two schools could be eligible for grants as high as $10,000.

Other states were more cautious about tangible rewards. For instance, Kansas wrote that it would provide a school with a gift to signify its reward status, “if funding provides.” And the gifts outlined in the application wouldn’t be extravagant; examples given included plaques and signage.

Kansas and a number of other states are also offering staff members at reward schools the chance to help bolster school improvement efforts across the state—for example, by serving as mentors at “priority” schools with similar demographics.

In other cases, states are offering flexibility on regulations. Mississippi, for instance, is allowing reward schools—and other high achievers—the chance to apply for flexibility in meeting a host of state regulations, including some that govern teacher-student ratios. That was already part of state law, but became a part of the state’s successful bid for ESEA flexibility.

In some cases, states simply haven’t had the money to fully finance their plans-on-paper for reward schools. For instance, Mississippi wrote in its application that it wanted to offer monetary bonuses to its reward schools. But that money doesn’t appear likely to materialize this year, in part because of sequestration, the across-the-board cuts to federal programs, including K-12 aid, that went into effect March 1.

“Our version of money is going to be more of the recognition and support phase,” said Staci Curry, the director of school support services for the Mississippi education department. The state is going to invite staff members from reward schools to serve on advisory councils to help pinpoint best practices in closing achievement gaps.

Right now, “we don’t really have a centralized resource for what good schools are doing,” Ms. Curry said.

But Louisiana distributed grants of more than $8,000 each to schools that made their growth targets. And one district got a check for $230,000 for its high gains in student achievement.

States seeking waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act had to outline the performance and improvement criteria by which they would single out schools for rewards. The specifics varied widely among waiver recipients, which so far include 34 states and the District of Columbia, as reflected in this sampling. (In most cases, states specified the schools in their waiver applications; their lists may have been adjusted subsequent to the application.) | Download this as a PDF.


High-Performing Schools

High-Progress Schools




Criteria vary with successive school years. For 2012-13, schools must be in the top 10 percent in terms of proficiency on state math and English/language arts tests, both for each tested subgroup and the population as a whole. During the previous two years, the school must have been in the top 25 percent statewide, both for all students and for each tested subgroup. Gaps between subgroups and other students must be shrinking.

Average annual growth of 2 percent for all students. Have reduced gaps between student population as a whole and subgroups between 2011 and 2012.

Certificate, ceremony, and possible monetary reward of up to $10,000 depending on availability of funds.



Top 10 percent of all Title I schools based on attainment over four years. Cannot have significant gaps between the student population as a whole and subgroups.

Top 10 percent of all Title I schools based on growth over four years. Cannot have significant gaps between the student population as a whole and subgroups.

Recognition at state board meeting. If funding is available, schools will receive “gifts” such as banners or plaques. Districts with reward schools can attend state-sponsored professional-development events at a reduced fee. Staff from districts with reward schools can serve as mentors to “priority” or “focus” schools.



Schools scoring in the 90th percentile or higher overall for accountability purposes. Must meet annual measurable objectives (AMOs); must have graduation rates of 60 percent or higher. Can include Title I and non-Title I schools.

The top 10 percent of Title I and non-Title I schools, as measured by the difference between one year of student achievement and the previous year. Can include “focus” and “priority” schools. Can include Title I and non-Title I schools.

Allowed to display a state education-department-authorized logo on their websites corresponding to their status. May receive financial reward, or professional-development opportunities, or the chance to partner with a low-performing school, if funding is available.

215 Total
152 Title I


Schools that receive a letter grade of A and demonstrate at least 5 points of growth.

Demonstrate that at least 35 percent of the students in the nonproficient supersubgroup meet or exceed expected growth in English/language arts and/or mathematics. Schools that receive a B, C, D, or F on their report cards must earn at least 10 points of growth per year.

Unspecified financial rewards, which may vary if the state’s Title I allocation increases. Public recognition in a press release and a statewide celebration.



Must be in the top 20 percent of schools in the state when it comes to achievement for all students and subgroup students over a three-year period. Must be in the top 20 percent on graduation rates for current year. Achievement gap between subgroup students and others must be among the lowest 25 percent in state. Must meet AMOs for all students and subgroup students for the current year.

Gain for overall student achievement is in the top 10 percent in the state, based on current year vs. two previous years. Gain in graduation rates in the top 25 percent in the state, based on current year vs. two previous years. The school must be in the bottom 25 percent of schools in the state when it comes to achievement gaps, or among the top 25 percent of schools in the state when it comes to closing achievement gaps.

Monetary rewards for Title I schools that have significantly closed the achievement gap, or have exceeded their AMOs for two or more years. Opportunity for staff to serve on state task forces. Can apply for exemptions from some state standards, including for libraries, science labs, teacher-student ratios, and the number of lesson preps a teacher can have.


* Number of schools identified after the application process.
SOURCES: State waiver applications; Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as NCLB Waivers: Rewarding Improvement


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