Teaching Profession

Illinois Is Among Outliers With No NCLB Waiver

By Michele McNeil — October 22, 2013 5 min read
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Despite having a state law that requires teachers to be evaluated based on student performance, Illinois still hasn’t been able to secure a waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act, even as the vast majority of states have been awarded the coveted flexibility from the U.S. Department of Education.

The hang-up? One year.

Illinois’ state law puts teacher-evaluation implementation on a slower track than what federal officials want, leaving the state to languish in waiver purgatory—and forcing more and more districts to fail to meet yearly goals under the outdated NCLB law.

All but seven states have been granted a waiver under NCLB. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has even awarded an unprecedented waiver to eight districts in California. In exchange for flexibility from many of the core tenets of the federal school-accountability law, states (and the California districts) had to promise on a fast track to adopt college- and career-ready standards, identify interventions for the lowest-performing schools, and create teacher-evaluation systems that are based in part on student test scores and used to inform personnel decisions.

“We’re so frustrated with it,” said Christopher A. Koch, Illinois’ superintendent of education, of the U.S. Education Department’s rules for handing out waivers—adding in an interview that Mr. Duncan and his staff concocted this timeline on their own.

“There is no provision in the law for any of it,” he said. “They are making it up. I have a hard time explaining it with any rational defense to my school districts.”

Standoff With Feds

The 2010 law in Illinois, passed before President Barack Obama even announced plans for waivers, calls for full implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system in all districts by the 2016-17 school year. To get a federal waiver, states have to fully implement their new evaluations by 2015-16. (The earliest waiver states had to pledge to implement teacher evaluations by 2014-15.)

Illinois is not budging on its timeline, and so far, neither are federal officials.

But state officials are growing optimistic. They say they anticipate that Illinois will get a waiver in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year, in large part because enough time has gone by that federal officials can see that the state is faithfully implementing the teacher-evaluation law.

“We are more hopeful now that the department has seen what’s going on here as far as the commitment that we have,” Illinois board of education spokesman Matt Vanover said.

A U.S. education department official indicated that the impasse may not be permanent, and the federal agency is still working with the state to identify a way Illinois can meet federal timelines.

Already, the department has recognized that a piece of its original timeline was untenable for some states. The department has offered the early-round waiver states an extra year to incorporate personnel decisions into their evaluation systems. But federal officials so far have not shown a willingness to adjust other timelines—even to benefit the home state of Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan.

The result is that schools and districts in Illinois are still subject to NCLB, which requires states to set increasingly higher goals for schools, culminating in 100 percent student proficiency by the end of this school year. (Illinois did get a one-year freeze from federal officials for those goals, or “annual measurable objectives,” but that freeze has since expired.)

Last year, 66 percent of Illinois’ schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under federal law. On Oct. 31, the state will release the latest student achievement results. State officials are expecting those failure rates to climb higher.

‘Workable, Honest’ Time Frame

But what’s standing between Illinois and its waiver isn’t insignificant, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst who has been studying waiver implementation at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

She points to the fine details of Illinois’ implementation. During the 2015-16 school year, the lowest-performing 20 percent of districts (or about 173 in all) are to begin using the new system. That leaves the vast majority of districts using new teacher evaluations in the 2016-17 school year—a year later than the federal requirements.

“That’s not just a little thing. It means most districts are a year behind. I think that makes it hard for the department to make an exception,” Ms. Hyslop said. Still, she said, Illinois has a strong plan in place for teacher evaluations—one that makes clear who is implementing what and when, in what order, and how student achievement is being used.

“My confidence in them is pretty high,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that about all waiver states.”

To that end, other states have gotten waivers without having a teacher-evaluation law, by simply laying out a plan on paper for how they will comply with federal requirements, according to an Education Week review of approved waiver plans.

Kansas, for example, lacks a law governing how student achievement should be used in teacher evaluations and has convened task forces to decide how to do this. (The state is now on “high-risk status” and in danger of losing its waiver after federal officials determined the state had not madeenough progress on its teacher-evaluation system.) New Hampshire is also working with task forces to develop a model of teacher evaluations for districts to use.

And Alabama’s waiver plan says that the state board of education’s strategic plan for 2020 will include a federally aligned teacher evaluation system.

For Illinois to move its timeline would require a change in state law, which was artfully negotiated more than three years ago. Plus at this late date, it would likely be logistically impossible for districts to speed up implementation, education advocates in the state say.

“We approached teacher evaluation in a thoughtful and reasonable way, and with a timeframe that’s workable and honest,” said Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, which works on education-improvement efforts in the state.

Getting a waiver now, more than a year after other states have, she said, would be a “deserved reasonable accommodation.”

“But is it fatal if we don’t? No. At the end of the day the work is there and the work will get done.”

Assistant Editor Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Illinois Among Outliers With No NCLB Waiver

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