Few Takers For Waivers

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That puzzling phenomenon is repeating itself all over the country.

In the past six years, more than 20 states have adopted waiver provisions that allow some schools to get out from under state regulations in order to experiment with teaching and learning. Waivers can be sought in a variety of areas, ranging from personnel requirements to curriculum mandates to the length of the school day.

But at both the state and district levels, officials report far fewer requests for waivers than they had anticipated. And the requests they have received cover relatively minor rules and regulations.

The reasons for such an underwhelming response are complicated. They include skepticism among educators that waiver requests will be taken seriously and a shortage of creative ideas that deviate from current practice. In addition, local rules and regulations may prove far more constraining than many state mandates.

Most reform advocates still think that waivers are a useful tool for allowing innovation to happen even though they have not been enthusiastically embraced. But they also believe that schools need stronger incentives to change before waivers will be widely used.

One of the most basic problems is that many educators simply don't trust the offer of regulatory relief.

Says Bruce Goldberg, co-director of the Center for Restructuring at the American Federation of Teachers: "Teachers, and educators in general, don't really believe that the door has been opened. They think there's got to be a catch somewhere.''

Often, teachers worry that waivers will be temporary and that--if they experiment--they will find themselves in trouble later on, when state or district leadership changes.

In other cases, school board policies, local tradition, and union contracts may be more stifling than state mandates.

"In fact, most of the things that constrain experimentation at the local level are locally imposed,'' asserts Robert Schwartz, a former education aide to Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

"There's a lot of chatter about deregulation,'' he says, "but my impression is that when push comes to shove, it is at least as likely to be conditions agreed to in the local collective-bargaining contract that teachers, in particular, see as problems which need to be circumvented.''

Union and school officials in some districts are trying to address such concerns. In Dade County, Fla., for example, 138 schools have been given the go-ahead to request waivers from district policies and the union contract as part of a schoolbased management program. Since the initiative began in 1986, more than 300 waivers have been approved, according to Pat Tornillo, president of United Teachers of Dade. Most of those waivers have focused on language in the union contract.

Among other things, waivers have enabled teachers in specific schools to give up their planning periods, evaluate their peers, and work longer hours for the same pay in order to reduce class size.

But Dade County has also encountered a phenomenon common in other places: requests for waivers from regulations that do not exist.

According to a report released this winter by the National Governors' Association, titled State Actions To Restructure Schools, "Schools operate under a combination of real and mythical rules that have gone unquestioned for years.''

Experts attribute part of the problem to middle managers, who add their own layers of restrictions to state and federal mandates and then pass them on as gospel. In other cases, tradition has led teachers to assume that imaginary rules prevent them from doing things differently.

But the primary reason for the lack of waiver requests may be the inability of educators to imagine making dramatic changes. "People really are, to a striking degree, prisoners of the school culture that they've grown up in,'' Schwartz says. Without access to new ideas, knowledge, and time, waivers and other forms of increased flexibility may not achieve much. In fact, schools may need several years of experimentation before they begin to stray far enough from existing practice to require waivers.

In San Diego, 48 schools are rethinking the way they operate. But a year into the process, "a lot of what's going on is not restructuring,'' says Hugh Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Association, "it's modifying the way we do some things.''

In Massachusetts, the state supplied funds for seven schools to revamp their programs in June 1988. Pam Chomsky-Higgins, a 1st grade teacher at the J.W. Killam Elementary School in Reading, Mass., says that teams of parents and teachers are working hard to change the way learning occurs. But "we haven't gotten to the point of asking for the kinds of things that the state might be able to provide through a waiver,'' she says. "We don't feel ready.''

"We're cautious about making changes that will have an impact on the other schools,'' the 1st grade teacher notes. "I think there's a feeling of not wanting to be so different that we're outside of what's going on in the town.''

Providing schools with significant regulatory relief may also be trickier than policymakers once thought. They are now beginning to realize that individual regulations may pose less of a problem than the combined weight of hundreds of intertwined rules and mandates that create an ethos of passivity within schools.

"It may not be individual rules that impede change,'' notes Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Reseach in Education. "It may be the intersection of many of them. So rule-by-rule waivers aren't going to help you a lot.''

Indeed, the waiver process itself may be too time-consuming and complicated, discouraging schools from even trying to change. In most states, the provision of waivers is neither blanket nor automatic. Schools must request waivers each time they encounter a regulatory barrier. And it is up to the school to justify the exemption.

"The procedures for granting waivers tend to be cumbersome in every state, operating on a slow, case-bycase basis,'' notes the NGA report. "The process is further complicated by lack of clarity over what rules can be waived and who has the authority to approve waivers from different sources'' at the local, state, and fed- eral levels.

"If the waiver process itself gets too bureaucratized,'' predicts Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, "people will say, 'I don't have the energy to jump through all those hoops.'''

Others argue that waivers are, at best, a limited tool for encouraging real flexibility in education. "Waivers allow but don't encourage change,'' says Beverly Anderson, director of policy studies for the Education Commission of the States.

Asserts Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy: "What the waiver system does is maintain the current culture because it essentially leaves in place this whole system of rules and regulations that define the world that people live in.''

For real change to occur, he suggests, states and school districts will have to move toward a more outcomedriven system of accountability. Once schools can be held accountable for outcomes, Tucker says, holding them accountable for processes will not be necessary.

Many people are closely watching Kentucky, where a new reform law permits schools that meet a certain level of performance to waive any regulation automatically. (See page 12.)

The state's ability to move from a highly regulated system to an "outcomes-oriented one,'' many agree, will suggest what is possible in other places.

In the meantime, says Jane David, co-author of the NGA report and director of the Bay Area Research Group, there need to be experiments with deregulation in all parts of the education system: federal, state, and local.

Such efforts, she believes, "have to start small'' in order to build trust. For now, David says, "waivers play a very important symbolic role. They do signal that restructuring is something very different from the usual reforms of the past.''

Still, many hope that waivers are only an interim step.

"In the ultimate, best-case scenario,'' says Terry Brooks, special assistant to the superintendent in Jefferson County, Ky., "schools would have very few restrictions to seek waivers from. But in the short term, you have to have some immediate mechanisms to seek relief.''

--Lynn Olson, Education Week

Vol. 01, Issue 09, Page 1-24

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