Sheen Fades as NCLB Waivers Near Three-Year Mark

By Alyson Klein — August 18, 2014 8 min read
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Back in 2011, states chafing under the badly outdated No Child Left Behind Act leapt at the Obama administration’s offer of relief from the mandates at the center of the law—and the chance to forge a new and innovative partnership with the federal government to bolster standards, pinpoint good teachers, and fix low-performing schools.

Three years later, much of the political sheen has come off the resulting NCLB waivers.

The waiver initiative has been marked by policy backtracks, political pushback, and wildly divergent, complicated approaches to school accountability. The system also has generated its own set of bewildering buzzwords: “extension” vs. “renewal,” for instance, and even a subcategory of “waiver-waivers.”

Waivers “gave states room to breathe,” said Andy Smarick, who served as the deputy education commissioner in New Jersey in 2011 when that state applied for the flexibility, and who later urged Congress to let the new waivers take hold before tackling an NCLB renewal.

“But what’s left feels extremely messy,” he said. “At this point, I couldn’t even begin to define what federal K-12 policy is in the age of waivers. It seems incoherent.”

The biggest policy pothole experts identify over and over again: The waivers tied together the controversial Common Core State Standards, new aligned assessments, and teacher performance. The Obama administration initially expected states to roll out new tests at the exact moment new educator-evaluation plans incorporating student outcomes were also coming on line.

The combination has led to political strife in states and course corrections by the U.S. Department of Education.

“They made so-called high-stakes testing much higher-stakes,” said Margaret Spellings, an architect of the NCLB law in 2001, who later served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of education.

“That’s placed all other reforms at risk, including their precious common core,” she said. “I’m crying in my bed at night that it also places muscular accountability at risk.”

But in the Obama administration’s view, the waivers have allowed states to better tailor accountability systems to meet their needs, and federal officials say they have adjusted implementation after getting feedback from states.

“We’re working with states in a spirit of flexibility,” said Deborah S. Delisle, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“We know that working with states to implement varying plans is very complicated,” she said, “but we think it’s better for all involved. ... We are very much interested in the outcomes we will get for kids.”

‘Tight’ or ‘Loose’?

The flexibility provided by the waivers has allowed states to create more individualized accountability systems and helped school districts gain control over millions of dollars in federal funding for disadvantaged students.

And, by and large, state school chiefs with waivers continue to see them as an improvement over the No Child Left Behind law, and nearly all are seeking one-year extensions offered by the Education Department this summer.

Some states say that by focusing attention and resources on the schools most in need of help, the waivers have led to significant gains in student achievement.

The waivers “gave us the opportunity to focus on growth,” said Brenda Cassellius, the education commissioner in Minnesota. “There’s a completely different conversation happening in our state around all kids.” Nearly 80 percent of Minnesota’s lowest-performing schools have seen gains under the new system, she added.

But at least one state—Utah—contemplated voluntarily giving up its waiver, citing too much federal interference. (The Beehive State ultimately decided this month to apply for an extension.)

And some states that didn’t win approval for the flexibility, including California, North Dakota, and Vermont, don’t feel that they are missing out on much.

“We’ve spent much less time looking over our shoulder and looking at what the federal government is doing,” said Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent in California. The absence of a waiver “enabled us to strike our own pathway,” he said, particularly in the rollout of the common-core standards, which has been a relatively smooth process in the Golden State.

Even state officials with a generally positive view of the waivers say the Education Department has at times fallen short of its rhetoric on collaboration.

“The department likes to say, ‘We’re tight on goals and loose on means,’ ” said Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, quoting one of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s favorite lines. “I don’t know that they’re too loose on means.” He noted, for instance, that states had to fill out a more-than-150-page application for a one-year waiver extension—a process that was supposed to have been “streamlined.”

But Mr. Holliday—who wrote a memo for skeptical district superintendents in his state extolling the virtues of the NCLB waivers—is sympathetic to the motivations behind all the bureaucratic back-and-forth.

The Obama administration, he said, is up against intense pressure from civil rights groups to hold states to their promises of raising the achievement of all students, including members of minority groups and those with disabilities.

“Innovation is probably the last thing they’re thinking about right now,” Mr. Holliday said of federal officials. “They’re probably just thinking about how to get through and let states keep their waivers.”

Patchwork of Systems

The waivers have been panned by the administration’s own congressional allies—including U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and lawmakers who represent majority-minority districts—as a retreat from accountability, particularly for the poor and minority students that the NCLB law was designed to protect.

“The performance of individual groups of kids is not a strong signal” in accountability systems developed under the waivers, said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students. “If you’re going to have one commonality across these systems, that’s a horrible one to have.”

At this point, it’s hard to know just how subgroups of students—including racial minorities and students in special education—have fared under the waivers, in part because the systems are so complex and variant.

For instance, many state accountability systems consider whether schools are able to close achievement gaps, but they all define that accomplishment differently, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

Some states, for example, are using in-school gaps, while others are looking at the gap between school and state averages, he said. And while all states are looking at growth in student performance, some are looking at growth measured against a standard, while others are looking at actual growth versus where students are projected to be.

The differences are highly technical, but they are important in gauging the impact of the waivers on student outcomes, particularly for members of subgroups.

At the same time, tests and standards in nearly every state are changing, which makes effects of the new systems harder to study and comprehend.

“The unfortunate truth is that it will be a few years before we can really get a sense of what’s working and what’s not,” Mr. Polikoff said.

Adding to the complexity: The Education Department has constantly revised waiver policies and expectations. And it’s been rigid in some respects, while doing a significant about-face in others.

Arguably, the administration took the hardest line on teacher evaluation. It yanked Washington state’s waiver because of a state law allowing districts to use their own local test scores, rather than results of state exams, in teacher evaluations. It also placed Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in “high risk” status—meaning in danger of losing their waivers—because of teacher-evaluation issues.

And federal approval of Illinois’ waiver took more than two years, primarily because the state’s timeline for fully implementing its teacher-evaluation system was one year later than the administration wanted.

In some instances, however, the Education Department has reversed course, offering states serious wiggle room on teacher evaluation, and eventually allowing some states to hang on to their waivers for an extra year, even if their performance-review systems weren’t ready to go.

Such changes give the impression that the department “didn’t really have a clear long-term vision of how this was going to play out,” said Mr. Smarick, who is now a partner at the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

But Mr. Holliday, the Kentucky schools chief, said the department is only responding to states’ concerns. “We’re the ones asking for the twists and turns,” he said.

What’s Next?

In the background is a ticking clock: The Obama administration will be out of power in January 2017. That’s right in the middle of the school year in which many states have to use their new, student-outcome-based systems of teacher evaluation to make critical personnel decisions, such as which teachers are promoted or fired.

Many observers expect that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law currently known as No Child Left Behind, will still be stalled at that point. It’s far too early to predict whether President Barack Obama’s successor will continue with the waiver system or scrap it for a new approach to accountability.

“At this point, we would really like the reauthorization to take place. All of this is stopgap, and that’s unfortunate,” said Kathleen Smith, the outgoing director of Virginia’s office of school improvement.

She said some district officials are reluctant to invest resources in new strategies—including new teacher-evaluation systems—knowing the landscape could suddenly change.

“They don’t know what will pay off in the long run,” Ms. Smith said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Sheen Fades as NCLB Waivers Near Three-Year Mark


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