Teaching Profession

Waiver-Renewal Twist Centers on Teacher Evaluations

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — May 20, 2014 6 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’s decision to ease the pressure on states seeking to alter their teacher-evaluation systems raises questions about what states will be able to do with this newfound breathing room, and the effect on states where the evaluation systems appear to be on course.

The department’s position—which will factor into decisions on whether to renew state waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act—could also intensify heated debates around teacher evaluations.

This debate pits those who want states to adhere to previous promises they’ve made on evaluations, and others, including teachers’ unions, anxious about the advent of new evaluations, especially since they will be guided in part by the results of new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle, in a May 9 letter, informed states that they will be able to renew their NCLB waivers even if they are still attempting to make significant changes to their evaluation systems. The waiver requests will now hinge on other key policies, such as their plans for assessments and how states intervene in low-performing schools.

States where waivers have been placed on high-risk status because of troubles with crafting new evaluation systems might be the most immediate beneficiaries. But the shift could affect different states in very different ways.

“It sounds like the department isn’t taking a hard line on [teacher evaluation] in the extension process,” said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation who has studied the waivers.

Prior to Ms. Delisle’s letter, the environment for waivers had become increasingly complicated. Several states, including Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon, had been working to address issues with their teacher-evaluation systems that had earned them warnings from the Education Department for not complying with conditions set forth in the waivers.

Turbulent Environment

In addition, last month Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB flexibility because it failed to pass a law requiring districts to use state test scores in teacher evaluations. And some Michigan legislators are pushing to pass a law this year requiring state assessment scores to be used in evaluations, with their waiver renewal potentially at stake. (The latest announcement by the federal department won’t help states that don’t already have these laws on their books.)

It’s not the first time the department has given states a friendlier timeline on evaluations. So far, five states—Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina—have received approval from federal officials to delay their new teacher-evaluation systems as part of their waivers. But the department’s shift earlier this month could affect several more states, as well as the broader debate about evaluations.

This time, the federal department said the additional breathing room would allow states to make “targeted adjustments” while they seek to renew their waivers. While states would have to conform to certain demands from Washington, it’s still unclear what would constitute an acceptable change by states, and whether certain changes will hurt some states in the waiver process more than others.

Still, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery, who noted that her state would stick with its plan of delaying the use of state test scores in evaluations until the 2016-17 school year, said that the department’s move was guided by the right philosophical principle.

“Every state is different. Every state is uniquely different,” she said. “The letter that was published on [May 9] memorializes that.”

New Mexico Secretary of Education-Designate Hanna Skandera, whose state was praised (along with the District of Columbia, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee) in a concurrent May 9 statement from the Education Department for developing and following through on new teacher evaluations, said states that remain on track with their evaluation plans should get additional recognition from the federal government down the road.

This recognition, she said, might take the form of a “more streamlined waiver-renewal process,” more discretion in the use of funds from Title I (designated for schools with large numbers of students from low-income backgrounds) and Title II (which targets teacher and principal quality), and special consideration from Washington when new federal funding streams become available.

Fueling Debate

“We have kept our commitments,” she said.

For those states that weren’t singled out for praise but are working on evaluations, federal officials also made the right call, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “I would say there’s a pretty clear distinction between not doing [teacher evaluation] at all and taking more time to do it,” he said.

But Ms. Hyslop said many states could end up ducking important changes. The extra time is more appropriate, she said, for states that have piloted evaluation systems and identified problems.

There’s also the prospect that the department’s shift, while relieving the immediate pressure on states over certain policies, will fuel the debate over the use of test scores in evaluations in the common-core era. Waivers themselves have also been attacked by members of Congress.

Charles Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group that favors the use of student growth on assessments in teacher evaluations, said that while the Education Department shouldn’t act as the final judge of evaluation systems, there might be unfortunate consequences of its latest move.

“It will allow people who are calling for a delay for nefarious purposes more leverage,” he said. “And it will give those who are genuinely trying to implement a good teacher-evaluation plan another year or two to do that. The question is, which state is which?”

He added that many groups—such as teachers’ unions calling for delaying the use of evaluations—aren’t saying how long such delays should last, proving that their true aims are political.

Statewide elections in 2014 also could prominently feature pushback to evaluations.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who oversaw the implementation of an evaluation system under the auspices of the federal Race to the Top program, is facing pushback from unions and K-12 advocacy groups as he seeks re-election. Although only 1 percent of teachers were found “ineffective” on evaluation results released last year, fears of how tests in general will affect teachers’ evaluations over the long term persist.

“Gov. Cuomo took the lead on implementing rigorous teacher evaluations, and appears committed to ensuring that they remain in place,” said Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirst NY, an affiliate of the Sacramento-based group led by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that supports the use of test scores in evaluations.

Unions Weigh In

But the two national teachers’ unions, which have publicly supported the common core, view the use of scores from new common-core-aligned tests in evaluations as problematic. They both reacted positively to the Education Department’s recent letter, and suggested that states take advantage where they can.

In a statement in response to that letter, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said, “It is important that implementation of new standards, student and educator supports, and assessments is done well, and states and districts should be given the needed time and tools to ensure student success.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, meanwhile, said in a statement she was pleased that the Education Department seemed to be responding to concerns from “educators and parents across the country concerning high-stakes testing and its impact on virtually every aspect of public education.”

She added, “We urge states to take advantage of this chance to fundamentally improve teaching and learning in our classrooms.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Waiver-Renewal Twist Centers on Teacher Evaluations

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