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Rural States in Hunt for NCLB Waivers

By Michele McNeil — September 25, 2012 5 min read
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The seven states that have applied for the latest round of waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act represent a large swath of rural America, ensuring that the U.S. Department of Education’s experiment in awarding flexibility in exchange for certain education-improvement promises will play out in a diverse set of states with vastly different geographies and student populations.

At least half the schools in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia are considered rural by the National Center for Education Statistics. Alabama also has a high number of rural students, while Hawaii’s single, state-run school district educates some students who live in remote island areas.

Those seven met the Sept. 6 deadline for a third round of judging under the Education Department’s waiver process, announced last year by President Barack Obama as Congress continued to stall in its efforts to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version.

So far, the Education Department has granted waivers to 33 states plus the District of Columbia. With the addition of the seven new applications, 44 states in all have asked for flexibility.

Greater Appeal

While rural states largely sat out the Obama administration’s other trademark programs—such as the Race to the Top grant competition—the offer of flexibility to any state that could agree to certain principles (such as creating teacher-evaluation systems that incorporate student growth) was far more enticing.

NCLB Waiver Proposals

Seven more states are seeking flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act in the third round of proposals. The U.S. Department of Education has already approved the applications for 33 states and the District of Columbia. To win approval, a state had to address a number of factors:

• The scope and details of the state’s accountability system, including how student subgroups will be treated and the minimum number of students (or “n” size) that a school must have for that subgroup to factor into the state accountability system.

• If subjects other than reading and math will be used in accountability systems.

• Whether the state has met all the federal guidelines for implementing new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporate student growth.

• Whether a state plans to keep supplemental education services, or SES, and public school choice, which were consequences for schools that failed to make the grade under the NCLB law, and if it will still require districts to set aside Title I funds to pay for them.

• Whether any legislative changes are being sought.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: Education Week; state applications

“We were extremely interested from the beginning; we just wanted to move ahead with all due diligence,” said Robert Hull, the associate state education superintendent in West Virginia. For example, he said the state wanted to wait to submit its application until a new law had been signed by the governor creating a teacher-evaluation system that uses student growth as one metric. That system is already in the pilot stages, and is scheduled to go statewide by 2014.

Mr. Hull said that the challenges his office faced weren’t necessarily because West Virginia is rural, it’s just that “we had some things we needed to align.” Among them: ramping up the state’s efforts to develop a student-growth model as a better measure of student and school progress.

Maine and New Hampshire had expressed concern in a February letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about how they would make waiver requirements work in their rural states, indicating they needed more time.

“For us, the challenge was in the timing of being able to pull it together in the available time,” said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman in Maine’s education department. In a small state with a small number of school districts and educators, he said there are a lot of expectations that everyone’s opinion will be considered.

“As a rural state we don’t have a sort of faceless, monolithic school system,” Mr. Connerty-Marin said. “Collaboration, for us, really had to be important.”

In addition to revamping teacher-evaluation systems, states hoping to get a waiver have to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to them, and adopt a differentiated accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of their most troubled schools. In return, states will no longer have to face the 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in math and reading, and their schools will no longer face NCLB-law sanctions such as providing school choice. District officials also will have more freedom to move around federal Title I money for disadvantaged students.

Common Approaches

While the seven third-round states are putting their own spin on accountability, they also share some common approaches.

Generally, these states are using just mathematics and reading in their accountability systems, whereas many early-round states incorporated other subjects, such as science and social studies.

They’re sticking with the existing NCLB-specified subgroups such as English-language learners and students with disabilities, versus combining at-risk students into one large “super subgroup,” as many previous waiver applicants had done.

And they are generally farther behind in implementing teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student growth.

But a few features in the applications stand out.

North Dakota, for instance, felt that aiming for a 50 percent reduction in the achievement gaps among various student subgroups was too ambitious and unrealistic. That’s one of the three choices the Education Department gave states in place of the 100-percent proficiency target under NCLB. Instead, the state is proposing its own goal—a 25 percent reduction in the achievement gap.

Alaska becomes the second state to ask for flexibility when it has not adopted the Common Core State Standards or signed on with one of two state consortia working on common assessments. Neither is required, but adopting the common core and joining a consortium are encouraged by the Education Department and are the fast-track way of proving to federal officials that a state’s standards, and tests, are up to snuff. Virginia, in the second round, became the first state to win a waiver without participating in either.

Alabama is one of the few states that plans to incorporate the percentage of effective teachers and principals in each school into that particular school’s rating system.

Hawaii, which won a $75 million Race to the Top award in 2010, is one of the few that is incorporating into its accountability system the number of graduates that enroll in two- and four-year postsecondary institutions. Of the seven third-round states, Hawaii is the only one that says it has met the teacher-evaluation requirements—the piece that has caused Hawaii the most trouble as it seeks to implement its Race to the Top award.

In rural states where teachers are teaching multiple subjects, the teacher-evaluation piece can be the most challenging, said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“You have to have a conversation about how [these initiatives] play out in really small schools. I think these states are really thinking about this in a serious way,” he said.

But rural applicants may also have been challenged by the size of their state education departments.

“These states tend to be smaller at the state education level. The [state education agencies] don’t have quite the capacity … the number of bodies to simply put together the application,” Mr. Minnich said. “It is a bit more challenging.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as Latest States in Hunt for NCLB Flexibility Include Rural Players

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