Even though 34 states and the District of Columbia have No Child Left Behind Act waivers in hand, many of them are still negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education over their teacher-evaluation systems—a crucial component if they want to keep their newfound flexibility.
More than six months after waiver recipients turned in their guidelines to the department, only 12 waiver states have gotten the green light for their evaluation systems. Education Department officials expect to start sending more approval letters soon, along with notices on which plans need more work.
The slow approval process comes as states continue to pilot their evaluation systems, grapple with issues such as evaluating teachers in nontested subjects, and figure out how to make student growth a significant factor in teacher ratings—all on a tight timeline dictated for the most part by the federal department.
In fact, 11 states had to change their planned teacher-evaluation systems, or create them anew, to qualify for a federal waiver, according to a new report by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group.
“You’re going to see a lot of fits and starts,” said Diane Stark Rentner, the CEP’s deputy director. “And you hope states are playing close attention because there’s going to be a lot to learn as we go forward.”
In the CEP survey, which was set for release March 4, states by and large reported a favorable impression of the waiver process, but a few expressed frustration with federal officials. One state said there was so much back-and-forth with the Education Department that its process “erred on the side of ridiculous.”
The Obama administration is offering the NCLB waivers as Congress struggles to rewrite the outdated federal accountability law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In exchange for flexibility on key tenets of the 11-year-old law enacted under President George W. Bush—such as that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of next school year—states had to agree to have many strings attached.
Chief among them: Adopt teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that incorporate student academic growth as a “significant factor” and are used in making personnel decisions.
But states are not entirely clear on what satisfies the department’s requirements for an acceptable teacher-evaluation system. For example, what is the minimum needed to ensure student growth is a “significant” factor?
Federal officials say they have generally approved systems in which student growth counts for between 20 percent and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. But also acceptable is a “trigger” mechanism, like one in Arkansas, where a teacher can’t be rated as effective if he or she fails to meet expectations for student growth.
As a condition for receiving a waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, states have to receive U.S. Department of Education approval for new teacher-evaluation systems. Most of the current recipients, 34 states and the District of Columbia, are still working on their plans and waiting for federal approval.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Another acceptable method is a matrix system, like one in Massachusetts, in which student growth doesn’t receive a specific weighting but is coupled with other measures, such as unannounced teacher observations.
Still unclear is what the department means by informing “personnel decisions.”
Department officials say that for defining personnel decisions, they relied heavily on peer reviewers of states’ evaluation plans, but that what was approved varied greatly by state. Some states spell out consequences tied to evaluations in law; others leave it up to districts.
The high level of federal discretion has drawn the ire of some in Congress.
“This simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver, with the [education] secretary having more authority to make decisions that, in my view, should be made locally by state and local governments,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, said during a hearing last month on NCLB waivers.
The administration “pretty well wrote the law” on teacher evaluation, he said.
For states, the biggest issue is how much flexibility federal officials will allow as they design and implement their evaluation systems, said Janice Poda, the director of the Strategic Initiative for the Education Workforce at the Council of Chief State School Officers.
“The states have had different degrees of success,” she said.
As one example, she said that some states may want to use only student learning objectives, called SLOs, for some grades or subjects to measure academic growth, but that federal officials don’t seem open to that approach. (SLOs are goals for student learning that are informed by data and are often agreed on by both the teacher and the principal.)
Ms. Poda said federal officials also seem reluctant to let states first set up support for teachers before going down the path toward evaluating them. Being assigned a rating by itself doesn’t mean a teacher is going to do a better job, she said—"you need the supports.”
Complying with the federally driven teacher-evaluation rules, she said, “is almost like the price the states have to pay in order to get flexibility in the other areas.”
The Education Department has sought waiver applications in four rounds; the fourth and latest application deadline was Feb. 28.
Waiver states that applied in the earliest two rounds must pilot their systems in the 2013-14 school year and fully implement them the next year. The systems then must be used to “inform personnel decisions” in 2015-16. (States that applied for waivers in later rounds are allowed to let each of those milestones slide by one year.)
States that did not have teacher-evaluation systems that met the federal requirements when they turned in their waiver applications in early 2012 or before had to agree to submit them by the end of last school year.
Since then, the department has been quietly going back and forth with states over what is and is not acceptable. To that end, states went through a second peer-review process in which outside judges scrutinized their teacher-evaluation plans.
(Even though the federal department has released an overall list of NCLB waiver judges, the department would not say exactly who is peer-reviewing the teacher-evaluation systems.)
Federal officials have not asked some states for any changes, but have instead asked for more—and more—information.
“It has been a lengthy process; it has been a congenial process,” said Kerri White, the assistant superintendent in Oklahoma’s office of educational support, adding that she was expecting her federal letter any day now.
For Oklahoma, which is piloting part of its teacher-evaluation system now, one area where federal officials are expected to want more details is how the state plans to use student-growth data for teachers of nontested subjects, such as the arts. The state school board is expected to tackle that issue this spring, Ms. White said.
Using student growth to evaluate teachers in nontested subjects is one of several challenges states are facing, federal officials say.
Among other tricky issues: how multiple measures used to evaluate teachers are rolled into one performance rating; how to appropriately judge teachers of English-language learners and special education students; and how to deal with special situations, like co-teaching.
Many states have little wiggle room in dealing with federal officials because they are bound by what’s in their own laws.
That’s the case in Minnesota, which is waiting for federal approval. Its evaluation models, spelled out in state law, pretty much meet the federal criteria, said Rose Hermodson, an assistant commissioner of education. The state, though, is working out some issues—namely, how to figure out the “value added” by individual teachers and incorporate such data into the evaluation system.
In Kentucky, full federal approval will likely come as the legislature takes final action this year on the state’s teacher-evaluation system, said state education department spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez.
While most states are waiting for their letters to confirm exactly where they stand with federal officials, a few already know.
Arizona, for example, needs to revise its system to comply with the student-growth requirements, according to a condition attached to its waiver when it was approved in July. Peer reviewers expressed concern that the state was going to use schoolwide data, even in a transition period, to evaluate individual teachers.
And Oregon’s guidelines are not approved because it has not completed its plans to incorporate student growth into its evaluation system, according to a January letter from federal officials. The state is field-testing a plan that lets districts, based on their needs, weight student growth at between 10 percent and 50 percent.
What the final range of weighting looks like will depend on the results of the pilot, said Heidi Sipe, an assistant superintendent in the office of educational improvement and innovation.
“We want to implement a model based on sound practice,” she said. If federal officials require a certain percentage for student growth, she added, the state will have to accept that to keep its waiver.
“We are hoping to have continued flexibility for our districts,” Ms. Sipe said.
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Feds, States Dicker Over Evaluations