Teaching Profession

For States, Collaboration Key to NCLB Waivers

By Michele McNeil — November 08, 2011 7 min read
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States that want newly offered relief from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are scrambling to satisfy an easily overlooked requirement that they “meaningfully” engage with teachers, unions, parents, and community organizations, and even modify their waiver proposals based on that input.

Federal education officials warn that failure to meet the collaboration requirement could doom even a stellar waiver application that includes a rock-solid accountability system and an aggressive plan for intervening in failing schools.

It’s an especially daunting task for the 16 states that have indicated they will apply by the Nov. 14 deadline for the first round of waivers being offered by the U.S. Department of Education under the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“This is a heck of a time squeeze. All of the states know their plans can’t be done in isolation, that in the long run, that will be a negative factor,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. He said the required collaboration was a factor in driving most states that want a waiver—or about 25—to apply in February. In fact, he said, some of the states that told the department they would apply in November may delay their applications for a while.

In September, after Congress had made little progress in reauthorizing the ESEA, the Obama administration announced a format for granting waivers to states from significant parts of the existing law. To gain a waiver, states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to them, adopt a differentiated accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of the most-troubled schools, and craft guidelines for teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that will be based partly on student growth and be used for personnel decisions. (“Obama Outlines NCLB Flexibility,” Sept. 28, 2011.)

In return, states will no longer have to face the 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in math and reading, their schools will no longer face NCLB-mandated sanctions, and district officials will have more freedom to move around Title I money for disadvantaged students.

All of that will have to be done under a plan crafted as part of a collaborative process, but stakeholders do not need to agree on all elements of the waiver proposal.

“I’m less interested in plans on paper and more interested in ability to execute in reality,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview last week. “If it’s a plan that comes in from on high and doesn’t have buy-in, it has much less likelihood of success. The only way you get better outcomes is you listen, you learn, you pay attention, and you reflect that with where you’re trying to go.”

Mr. Duncan went on to stress that the department wants to see input from parents, students, and the community—not just from teachers and their unions.

But just how much collaboration will be enough is unclear, as that decision primarily will be left up to a cadre of outside peer reviewers the department has chosen. Not meeting that requirement—to the satisfaction of the peer reviewers or the department—would be a deal-breaker. States would have to try again in a later round of waiver-judging, which is expected to occur next month and throughout 2012.

“It is a requirement. If a state’s flexibility plan lacks collaboration, the department would view this as an undeveloped or missing piece,” said Liz Utrup, a department spokeswoman.

Head Start for Some

Some states will have a much easier time satisfying the collaboration requirement than others.

States that have been working for months to retool their accountability systems, and have been soliciting input along the way, will be ahead of the curve, Mr. Wilhoit said, citing as examples Colorado, Georgia, and Kentucky.

But a lot of states fall into a second category. “I would say their outreach is not as extensive. They’ll be working in a condensed time frame, with high pressure,” he said.

In New Mexico, which plans to apply this month for a waiver, state officials have held nearly 30 meetings with the public and with education stakeholders around different parts of the plan and will hold teleconferences with stakeholders to solicit input on the overall plan, said Larry Behrens, a state education department spokesman.

Indiana has been working for months on a new student-growth accountability model, which will be the backbone of its waiver request, and state department officials—including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett—have tallied up meetings with 30,000 educators.

Stephanie Sample, an education department spokeswoman in that state, said officials continue to meet with state-level union leaders about teacher-evaluation issues, which are also part of the waiver process.

In Kentucky, “basically, we’ve done it all,” said Lisa Gross, the director of communications and community engagement for the state education department. “We’ve had meetings, asked for comments, shared information, engaged in formal and informal activities. This has been going on for months.”

Though they predate the current waiver process, examples of collaboration in Kentucky include convening groups of teachers in late 2009 and 2010 to talk about the state’s adoption of new common standards and accountability systems. Officials also held a meeting this month with the state’s Teachers Advisory Council to review Kentucky’s waiver plan.

Buy-In Theme

The waiver application’s collaboration requirement is akin to the buy-in that states were required to seek as they competed for $4 billion in Race to the Top funds last year. Those plans required sign off not just from a state’s superintendent but also from its governor, and states won extra points if they had signed pledges of support from teachers’ unions, school districts, and other groups. Though it was difficult to quantify, buy-in became a key factor that put some states over the top in winning a coveted Race to the Top prize.

The bar is much lower in the waiver-application process, however. Only collaboration is required—support for the waiver proposal is not—and only the state superintendent’s signature is required.

“Consultation doesn’t mean negotiation,” said Tim Daly, the executive director of the New York City-based New Teacher Project, an alternative teacher-training program. Mr. Daly monitored the buy-in process as part of the Race to the Top competition.

But that also doesn’t negate the importance of the waiver requirement, either, he added.

“We’ve had some very divisive and contentious policy changes at the state level in recent times,” Mr. Daly said. “The department is sending a message that they don’t want this to be done that way.”

Case in point: Wisconsin. Its state teachers’ union has been feuding with Republican Gov. Scott Walker over the passage of a law earlier this year that restricts teachers’ and other workers’ collective bargaining powers. Despite the rancorous relationship, the waiver process has—so far—been smooth.

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said she’s confident that teachers’ opinions genuinely will be considered.

The National Education Association affiliate has held eight meetings throughout the state to draw input from local communities on what the waiver request should look like and will take a final report to the governor-appointed state accountability task force, which is working on the waiver plan. At those community meetings, Ms. Bell said, two big themes emerged: Parents and teachers don’t think a single test score offers the final say on student learning or teacher performance, and they believe that the needs of special populations need to be better addressed.

The strategy to present these recommendations as stemming from local communities, and not just unions, was intentional.

“When we add our voices to the community at large, it will be seen as not just the unions speaking,” she said.

Educator Optimism

In New Jersey, where the teachers’ unions have clashed with state officials, there’s optimism among educators about the process, said Martha DeBlieu, associate director for education research and issues analysis at the New Jersey Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

State officials reached out to the union to ask for feedback, and the union offered several key recommendations. Among them: that struggling schools be paired with successful ones, that multiple measures of student achievement be used in any teacher-evaluation system, and that an alternative evaluation system be created for high-performing teachers.

Whether those recommendations will be incorporated is an open question; the union was waiting to be briefed on the full plan late last week.

“We really were very, very encouraged that they did seek out our feedback,” Ms. DeBlieu said, “and were generally interested in the ideas that we could bring forward.”

Assistant Editor Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Collaboration a Make-or-Break Mandate for NCLB Waivers


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