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Transparency Watch: NCLB Waiver Judges Identified

By Michele McNeil — November 17, 2011 4 min read
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A couple of weeks ago, Politics K-12 made a strong case for why the U.S. Department of Education was wrong for not disclosing, up front, the names of the judges who would help decide which states earned waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act and which wouldn’t.

Today, to its credit, the department reversed course and identified the 21 education-policy experts who will inform U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver decisions. (More on the who’s-who list in a moment.)

In late October, the department said it planned to keep the names secret until after the process was mostly over to keep things “fair and consistent.” Today, spokeswoman Liz Utrup told me: “The decision to post peer reviewers’ names now, instead of after the review is complete, is a product of thoughtful conversations about how to balance the integrity of the review process and privacy concerns with our commitment to transparency.”

The waiver judges are an interesting mix of researchers, think tank and advocacy folks, and those with experience working for a state education agency or local district. In fact, the field of 21 is heavily stacked with people who have deep experience at state departments. Much of the group is in the pro-strong-accountability camp, with a lot of folks dedicated to improving the performance of student subgroups, whether they be minority or poor kids, or special education students and English-language learners.

At least seven have clear experience working for a state education department, which should please the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, which was critical of the Race to the Top judging process for largely omitting those folks. They are: Karla Baehr, a deputy commissioner from the Massachusetts department; Monique Chism, an innovation and improvement administrator with the Illinois State Board of Education; Pete Goldschmidt, the director of assessment and accountability at the New Mexico department; Sara Heyburn, a policy advisor with Tennessee’s department; and Amy McIntosh, a senior fellow with the New York State Education Department Regents Research Fund.

Though no longer working for a state department, another two also bring that perspective: Richard J. Wenning, a former Colorado associate commissioner who, in 2010, testified before Congress about the use of data in accountability systems; and Christy L. Hovanetz, a former higher-up in the Minnesota and Florida departments, who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Three of the reviewers have district-level experience, including Judy Elliott,, the former chief academic officer of Los Angeles Unified, who was recently bought out of that position because she fell out of favor with the new superintendent there, even as she was praised for her aggressive education improvement ideas. The others with district experience include two with English-language learner expertise: Barbara M. Medina, from Denver Public Schools, and Gabriela Uro, of the Council of Great City Schools.

Researchers who will serve as peer reviewers are Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz, of high school dropout factory fame; Rebecca Kopriva, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, who’s an expert in ELL testing; and two experts in testing ELLs and special education students from the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes—Rachel Quenemoen and Martha Thurlow. Also on the roster are two teacher-quality researchers: Allison Henderson, from Westat, who served as a judge in Race to the Top, and Sabrina Laine, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. And another researcher also has strong state ties: Edward Roeber, an adjunct professor at Michigan State University who used to direct assessment issues for CCSSO.

And, lastly, are four people who work for think tanks, advocacy groups, or another kind of education policy organization, including two judges who are leaders at the Education Trust, President Kati Haycock and K-12 policy development director Daria Hall. The Ed Trust, which is big on subgroup accountability and getting states and districts to be more aggressive in closing the achievement gap, has generally praised the waiver framework, but has also said the onus will be on states and the federal department to deliver a strong replacement system for NCLB.

Also judging is Susan Hanes, a technical advisor with the Center on Innovation and Improvement, which works on school turnarounds, and Ross Wiener, the executive director of the Aspen Institute, which works on union-district collaboration issues and last year tried to help some states win Race to the Top.

With 11 applications for waivers already in the hopper, the peer reviewers’ work starts now. In this first round, the goal is to get the judging mostly done in December and award the first set of waivers after the first of the year. States can apply in the second round in mid-February, and on a rolling basis through 2012.