Teaching Profession

Federal Oversight Takes Aim at Waiver Compliance

By Michele McNeil — August 26, 2013 7 min read
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In the wake of the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to place three states on “high-risk status” for problems with their No Child Left Behind Act waivers, it’s clear that the federal push to grant states sweeping flexibility in school accountability will be fraught with stumbles.

Implementing teacher evaluations tied to student growth is a significant sticking point for many waiver states, including Kansas, Oregon, and Washington—which were formally warned by federal officials Aug. 15 that they might lose their waivers if they don’t get new evaluations back on track.

But during an initial phase of monitoring by the Education Department, federal officials are anxiously eyeing other potential land mines as well, according to an Education Week review of the first round of oversight reports issued over the past several months by the department.

In those reports, federal officials raised concerns about:

Feet to the Fire

The U.S. Department of Education is monitoring states as they implement their No Child Left Behind Act waivers, focusing initially on basic compliance with key areas, such as identifying low-performing “focus” and “priority” schools. So far, federal officials have identified challenges in most states in a range of areas, including:

“Priority” schools: Federal officials want to make sure that all “priority” schools in the bottom 5 percent, aside from those that get federal School Improvement Grants, are implementing “meaningful interventions” for at least three years.

Graduation rates: Federal officials want more information on how the state is using GED-attainment data in its school rating system. Specifically, federal officials want to ensure that GED attainment “is not masking low graduation rates and that students are not being pushed into a GED track.”

New or small schools: Federal officials want to monitor how the state holds accountable small schools, schools that serve nontested grades, and schools that do not have a sufficient number of years of data.

Subgroup accountability: Federal officials want to ensure the state is appropriately identifying and intervening in Title I schools that are not among the bottom 15 percent that, based on “annual measurable objectives” and other measures, including graduation rates, and that are not making progress in improving student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps. In particular, federal officials will monitor the extent to which the districts’ school improvement plans developed and implemented during the 2012–13 school year take into account the progress of all students, as well as subgroups, toward the state’s new AMOS.

Turnaround schools: The state committed to turning around a total of 83 schools, including 25 that are not receiving School Improvement Grants for the work. Federal officials are monitoring how the state will ensure those 25 schools will implement either one of the four SIG models or interventions aligned with the turnaround principles by the 2014–15 school year.

SOURCES: Education Week; U.S. Department of Education

• How states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, will promote significant improvement in the lowest-performing “priority” schools that have not received federal School Improvement Grants to help do the work.

• How states, including Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah, are intervening in schools that are seeing poor progress among specific subgroups of at-risk students.

• How states, including Florida, Louisiana, and South Dakota, are making sure graduation rates play a meaningful role in new accountability systems.

The monitoring reports are important, federal officials have said, as states seek to have their waivers renewed; most of the waivers expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year. The department is expected to issue new guidance about the renewal process in the coming weeks.

“We never do anything perfectly, there’s always room for improvement,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview this month, although he wouldn’t elaborate on what, if any, changes federal officials would seek from states. “It’s a good time to get some feedback from our states and where we can be a better partner, where we can be clearer. The second time around gives us a chance to do that.”

Flexibility, Consequences

The Education Department has awarded waivers to 41 states, the District of Columbia, and a group of eight districts in California that free them from many provisions of the NCLB Act. Particularly coveted is the freedom from the requirement that districts set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds to provide tutoring and transportation to higher-performing schools for students in persistently low-performing schools. As of last week, Pennsylvania was the most recent state to receive a waiver.

To get this flexibility, states had to agree to a host of federal conditions, including implementing differentiated accountability systems and linking teacher evaluations to student growth on tests.

Last week’s high-risk designation for Kansas, Oregon, and Washington were the Education Department’s first enforcement action on the waivers and came more than two years after the first were granted. The three states face having their waivers revoked after the 2013-14 school year if they don’t make progress on tying teacher-evaluation systems to student growth.

The enforcement action is part of an intensive federal effort to provide oversight to a patchwork of 40-some new, widely divergent accountability systems that have been approved.

To that end, the Education Department is working its way through two levels of monitoring for each state. The first level, which has wrapped up for early-round states and is ongoing in states that won waivers in later rounds, involves 90-minute, in-depth phone calls with each state, along with follow-up reports posted on the department’s website. The department’s goals are to establish basic compliance with critical elements of each state’s waiver plan, particularly in identifying low-performing “focus” and “priority” schools and designing interventions for them.

The next level of monitoring will be more intense. Federal officials will eventually conduct site visits in each state for more in-depth interviews about waiver implementation. States with more problem areas and with larger Title I grants (usually because of sheer student-enrollment size) will get priority for those site visits.

Federal officials have piloted this on-site monitoring already with Louisiana and Colorado, which got their waivers last year.

In Colorado, a two-person federal review team visited in May and conducted interviews with state department officials who work on assessments, accountability, educator effectiveness, and programs that deal with students with disabilities and English-language learners, said Megan McDermott, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s education department. She said there was a noticeable shift in what federal officials were interested in—not just in compliance with basic federal rules, but in how well the state was implementing its plan.

Federal officials sent four reviewers to Mississippi. “We experienced two intense days of conversation around Mississippi’s work in schools supporting quality instruction and increased student outcomes,” said its education department spokeswoman, Patrice Guilfoyle.

She said federal officials were particularly pleased with Mississippi’s cohesion around implementing the waiver’s goals, but also concerned about district capacity to implement quality interventions because of state funding limitations.

While struggles with teacher evaluations and school turnarounds and interventions are common in a lot of waiver states, the federal reports from the first round of monitoring also turned up problems unique to some states.

Basket of Concerns

Federal officials are monitoring Arizona, for example, after the state did not award letter grades initially as it promised to do in its accountability system to 29 schools. South Dakota is delaying interventions for its priority schools that don’t receive SIG funds until the 2013-14 school year, which federal officials also are watching.

And in Louisiana, federal officials want to know more about the effects of giving a small amount of weight in the school grading system to the number of students who obtain a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said that while he understands the federal policy of pushing the four-year route to a traditional high school diploma, he also wants to encourage his schools not to ignore a 20-year-old student who is never going to achieve that. By awarding just a few points to schools whose students achieve a GED certificate, he said, “it gives a school a reason beyond the moral reason to focus on kids who are overage and undercredited.”

For the state, he said, “the challenge is to create an incentive for schools to serve those kids at a time when you’re not rewarding them either.” To that end, he said including GEDs in the state’s rating system so far hasn’t changed any school’s score and has been more symbolic in nature. He doesn’t foresee any problems with federal officials renewing the state’s waiver.

Advocates on Alert

As the federal department works through its own monitoring process, advocacy groups are closely watching waivers’ implementation and the federal renewal process.

The role of graduation rates in new federally approved state accountability systems is of particular concern to many civil rights and advocacy groups. In March, the federal department issued revised guidance to states making clear that if a school misses graduation-rate targets for a particular subgroup of students, such as racial and ethnic minorities, it has to implement some sort of intervention.

While that’s a good first step, federal officials have to make sure that it actually happens, said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which works on high school issues.

“We saw this as a very helpful step forward that needs to be implemented. From our analysis there were a number of states that had no or very little subgroup graduation-rate accountability,” Mr. Lovell said.

His group is also closely watching a growing trend in states to create multiple pathways to a diploma. “There’s a concern that lower-performing students could be either informally or formally directed toward pathways that are less rigorous,” he said.

The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of at-risk students, also has concerns about the attention to subgroups in the new waivers. While states had to set new academic-achievement goals for individual subgroups of students, missing those targets doesn’t necessarily trigger any required interventions as was the case under the NCLB law.

In many states, those goals are separate from the state’s school rating system—a problem that should be fixed in the waiver renewal process, said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust.

“We need to go back in and much more explicitly spell out that if a school is not consistently making their goals ... if they are consistently not meeting their goals for black students,” she said, “what is that school going to do to help those students?”

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Waiver States Under Scrutiny


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