Tight Script for NCLB Waivers in Turnaround Arena

By Alyson Klein — December 13, 2011 5 min read
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States seeking leeway from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act are proposing ways to execute the Obama administration’s playbook for turning around their lowest-performing schools.

Although the U.S. Department of Education gave states significant flexibility on other areas in crafting their waiver applications, the administration was much more specific when it came to the right prescriptions for improving the bottom 5 percent of schools in every state, defined as “priority schools” in the waiver process.

In the turnaround area, the department is requiring that states spell out how they would address such “principles” as extending learning time, using student achievement data to inform instruction, putting in place an instructional program backed up by research, and considering nonacademic factors in student achievement, such as students’ social and emotional needs.

Experts often cite as a weakness the part of the NCLB law that explains how to fix schools that perennially miss achievement targets. Under the law, a state could require such a school to close down, reopen as a charter, or choose another option. Most states picked the most flexible, “other” option.

That last option “provided a loophole from meaningful reform for the lowest-performing schools,” said Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the Education Department.

The federal agency is hoping to help states think through more specific steps under the waiver process. “Through flexibility, states will implement comprehensive interventions that address specific steps to improve these schools with the overall goal of dramatically improving student achievement,” Ms. Martin said.

The new waiver guidelines would not apply to schools receiving federal School Improvement Grant money, however; they would still have to use the stringent options spelled out in the sig regulations.

Shared Strategies

Some common turnaround approaches emerge in the first round of applications, which were submitted last month. While most of the states address all the areas outlined in the department’s principles, in general, they do not go far beyond them, according to an Education Week review of the applications.

School-Improvement "Principles"

States applying for waivers from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act must address specific “turnaround principles” for low-performing schools, including:

  • Reviewing principal qualifications.
  • Reaching out to families and communities.
  • offering nonacademic supports, including improving student health and behavior.
  • using data to inform instruction.
  • Redesigning the school day to allow for increased learning and collaboration time.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Common ideas include hiring data coaches to help teachers and principals better understand where students are in terms of performance, putting in place instructional “walkthroughs” to check out teachers’ practices, and working with districts to extend the school day or add extra planning time.

The shared strategies are to be expected because the “turnaround principles"—areas the department is asking states to specifically address—make sense, said Jeremy Ayers, a senior policy analyst at the Center on American Progress, a think tank in Washington. “These are the right ingredients,” he said. The test is, “how are you implementing them, are you getting the accountability and support you need to meet those goals?”

Some states have put their own twist on school improvement.

For instance, Tennessee has designed what it calls the state-run Achievement School District, modeled on the Recovery School District set up in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Schools in the special, statewide district would be run by charter operators, or directly by the Achievement School District itself. Schools directly operated by the new authority would be given charterlike leeway when it comes to hiring, budgeting, scheduling, and programming.

Districts with low-performing schools could choose to take part in an “innovation” zone. That would require the district to give schools autonomy and intensive support, similar to what schools are getting from the state-operated ASD district.

Professional Development

Staff development is also a key component of the applications. In Georgia, for instance, the school leadership teams of “priority schools” would attend a summer leadership academy, where they would develop their improvement plan for the year.

In Kentucky, data coaches and math and reading specialists—selected and trained by the state—would be placed directly in the priority schools.

For the most part, the applications do not call for the removal of a particular percentage of teachers, a much criticized hallmark of the Obama administration’s turnaround models.

Still, states are proposing to look closely at the performance of teachers in priority schools. In Florida, for example, teachers that don’t increase learning gains at a rate of 65 percent or more in reading and math—or don’t contribute to school improvement—would be replaced.

The performance of subgroup students, such as English-language learners, was another consideration. In Minnesota, schools that are identified as priority schools because of the performance of student subgroups would get a chance to learn from high-performing schools with similar demographics.

In the areas of parent engagement and support services, at least two states—Florida and Kentucky—say they would like schools to use an approach known as positive behavior supports, a classroom-management strategy.

Different Endgames

States vary widely in how they would determine when a school could exit from priority status and no longer be deemed low-performing or given special attention.

In Massachusetts, schools would have to meet numerous benchmarks. For instance, elementary and middle schools would need to improve student performance at a rate that’s consistent with low-performing schools that made substantial gains between 2006 and 2009.

And in Minnesota, schools would no longer be considered “priority” if they get out of the bottom quartile of performers for two consecutive years.

Kentucky schools would have to meet the state’s new achievement benchmarks for three years in a row, and actually get out of the bottom 5 percent, statistically speaking, when it comes to student achievement.

The states’ approach to turnarounds in their waiver applications may be a harbinger of what’s to come in the reauthorization of the nation’s main education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Under a comprehensive reauthorization bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in October, states would no longer have to use the four SIG models for schools that receive federal improvement dollars. Instead, they would be allowed to submit their own improvement plans to the secretary of education for approval.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Sets Playbook on Turnaround


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