College & Workforce Readiness

Civil Rights Groups Wary on Waiver-Renewal Guidelines

By Michele McNeil — November 26, 2013 6 min read
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Civil rights groups that have been waiting for years for federal officials to address the problem of inequitable distribution of effective teachers suffered a setback when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan backtracked on plans to attach more requirements for states hoping to renew their No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

U.S. Department of Education officials say that they are not backing away from a strong equity agenda, and that they plan to develop a 50-state strategy that is not limited to the 42 states plus the District of Columbia that have NCLB waivers. By the end of January, department officials say, they will have begun a process of putting teeth into existing Title I and Title II laws. (For example, the NCLB law currently requires that states have approved equity plans as part of the “highly qualified teacher” provision.)

What’s more, Mr. Duncan has promised that he will be tough on states as they go through the waiver-renewal process, even predicting he will revoke some waivers by summer.

But the assurances haven’t assuaged critics.

“The 50-state strategy should have been started 12 years ago,” said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates in support of low-income and minority students. “It’s disappointing, and it sends a message that it’s not at the top of their agenda.”

Revised Guidelines

In guidelines released in August and intended to govern the renewal process, the Education Department planned to require that states, by October 2015, use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their white and better-off peers.

The department also planned to require states and districts to improve the use of federal Title II funds for professional development, with a requirement that districts spend the money on “evidence based” programs linked to new college- and career-readiness standards.

Those requirements are now gone, according to a one-page letter sent Nov. 14 to state schools chiefs that details waiver-renewal instructions.

For states, the bottom line is that they will have a far easier time renewing their waivers, although the additional flexibility now will be for only one year, not two, according to the guidelines.

“This has little to do with backing away from anything,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, adding that his organization plans to work with the department on the new 50-state strategy to address the large issue of teacher distribution. “The states are very committed to this agenda.”

States’ Growing Workload

Adding teacher-distribution requirements to waiver renewals would have piled a significant amount of work on states already grappling with implementing the Common Core State Standards and new teacher-evaluation systems linked to student growth. The department has already relaxed part of its teacher-evaluation timeline to address these concerns.

Department officials acknowledged that it may have been a bit shortsighted to pursue such an aggressive agenda in a waiver-renewal process. They said they decided to make this change after they released the guidance in August, got feedback, and recognized what states were doing and the heavy lift already going on in K-12.

Now, the renewal process will be far more streamlined. States will have to address any findings from federal monitoring calls and visits, plus any additional issues they want to raise. The department is still working on data analyses to determine if states are doing a good job identifying the right schools for intervention. And many smaller requirements remain, such as that districts have more responsibility to turn around struggling schools.

Even before the department’s reversal on waiver renewals, civil rights groups were growing concerned, however, about what they saw as weaknesses in the waiver program, from the lack of accountability on student subgroups to a lack of emphasis on graduation rates.

In an Oct. 22 letter to Mr. Duncan, civil rights groups—including the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in New York City, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that works on graduation-rate issues—urged the secretary to aggressively use his leverage from waiver renewals to ensure that states are helping the students most at risk of academic failure.

They said they had “serious concerns about whether states’ new accountability systems maintain an adequate focus on closing achievement gaps between these groups and their more advantaged peers.”

‘Lack of Trust’

To Mr. Duncan, this is not a federal retreat from a strong equity agenda, nor is it a signal that the department will be lax with waiver requirements. However, Mr. Duncan acknowledged in a Nov. 15 meeting of the CCSSO there has been “push back” from some groups that fear states will now be less aggressive about putting top-performing teachers in classrooms with disadvantaged students.

“There is a huge lack of trust here,” he said. “There are folks who think some states talk the talk but don’t walk the walk in some of these things. Some of that historical skepticism is valid in my mind, quite frankly.”

The secretary said he couldn’t point to “a single district” that is doing enough to address teacher-placement issues. More work will need to be done in that area, he said.

And some states are not doing enough to meet the terms of their existing waivers, Mr. Duncan said.

“I’m sure someone will say that what we did means that we won’t pull a waiver,” he said. “I want to be really clear that the odds are that we will revoke a waiver or two or three, and that could happen as early as this summer. ... I just want to be really upfront and honest about that.”

Indeed, the Education Department has already placed three states—Kansas, Oregon, and Washington—on “high-risk status” over problems with their teacher-evaluation systems. And federal officials are also in a tussle with Arizona over its teacher-evaluation system and the weight it gives graduation rates in its accountability system.

The Department’s Record

The Education Department has had the opportunity to pursue such an agenda in the past, but those efforts have lacked a lot of teeth. The 2009 federal economic-stimulus package did, for the first time, put the word “effectiveness” into federal legislation, by making teacher effectiveness one of the four pillars that would govern the spending of $100 billion in education stimulus aid. Also, in the stimulus-funded Race to the Top grant contest, teacher distribution was one of many criteria on which states were judged.

The NCLB waiver renewals, however, marked the first significant opportunity for the department to ramp up pressure on the issue.

Interest groups will be watching closely.

Ms. Tromble of the Education Trust said the first steps are to ensure that states are collecting data on how teachers are distributed within and among schools, and to develop strategies to make sure poor and minority students have equal access to the most effective educators.

In some of the first congressional reaction, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he generally supports the change in the process. Nevertheless, Press Secretary Allison Preiss said, “Chairman Harkin is committed to continued oversight on how the waiver agreements are impacting students and will closely monitor the department’s proposed 50-state strategy to ensure that states are on a path to achieving an equitable distribution of effective teachers, as it is critical that all students have equal access to high-quality instruction.”

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Groups Wary on Waiver-Renewal Guidelines

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