No Child Left Behind’s successor, smartly written, can make impact

If you had $23 billion a year dedicated to improving low-income children’s education and addressing a wide variety of other congressionally negotiated purposes, what would you do?

This is the question Congress should be asking when its members finally sit down to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Instead, however, it’s more likely that Congress will simply tinker around the edges in hopes of “fixing” the ESEA — also known today as the No Child Left Behind Act — rather than transforming it.

The basic provisions of Title I, the ESEA’s largest program — providing more than $14 billion a year to more than 54,000 schools and 23 million students — have barely changed in almost a half-century. The program has been an untouchable symbol of the nation’s commitment to bettering the lives of schoolchildren from low-income families, despite little evidence that it has changed the odds for most of its intended recipients. And similar programs have had comparably modest effects.

This lack of transformational change occurs because federal education legislation typically is a blunt instrument that only asks schools to adhere to regulations based on imperfect policy and outdated evidence. Yet, history tells us that carefully crafted and focused legislation can do a few things: promote equality of opportunity; create infrastructure to help improve quality; stimulate state and local reform; and support good research, innovation, and the dissemination of knowledge.

The first step to realizing the promise of legislation is to clear out the underbrush of existing ESEA programs and start over from scratch. New legislation focused on only a few evidence-based strategies for improving equality and quality should replace the old programs. This would build on knowledge accumulated over the past three decades from basic research on teaching, learning, and organizational improvement, as well as lessons from high-performing countries, states, and districts. The dramatic reduction of programs would eliminate most regulations and administrative costs, thereby giving states and districts a greater opportunity to concentrate on thoughtfully implementing new programs.

While the timing of the reauthorization process remains uncertain, the new ESEA, whenever it emerges, should address three specific issues: reducing inequalities, stimulating quality, and funding new practical research and innovation.

Incentives for equitable funding

The first title, or section, of a new ESEA should offer states and districts incentives to develop equitable funding systems, provide additional funds to high-poverty secondary schools, and support preschool and kindergarten opportunities for low-income students. Each of these addresses a specific and critical need in our schools. In many states, school funding formulas favor students from well-to-do families and communities. With political will and federal incentives, this can be corrected.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group devoted to high school reform, cites evidence from Johns Hopkins University that finds that approximately 13 percent, or 2,000, of the nation’s public high schools account for 50 percent of our country’s dropouts. The second component of this section of ESEA would provide resources and ongoing training for the faculty and staff members in those high schools and their feeder middle schools to create the kinds of supporting, motivating, and challenging environments necessary to prepare and retain their students.

Finally, a large body of literature finds that many children from low-income families have not learned the language and behavioral skills that will prepare them for 1st grade and beyond. These students enter 1st grade with a huge gap in size of vocabulary and oral-language skills and rarely catch up. To address this, the new ESEA would include a focus on training Head Start and other preschool and kindergarten teachers to provide these fundamental skills. None of this is easy to do, but all of it is necessary if we are to reduce the degree of inequality in our nation’s schools, one of the largest in the developed world.

Encouraging what works

A second title in the ESEA would focus on supporting long-term strategies to improve the effectiveness of education for all students in states, districts, and schools. The effort would build on the powerful literature on organizational theory and international best practices that finds that a positive and supportive climate and a focus on continuous improvement of instructional practice are the secret sauce in countries, states, and districts with effective schools. Singapore; Finland; Ontario, Canada; the state of Massachusetts; Long Beach, Calif.; and Austin, Texas, are all important examples. Sustained, focused, evidence-oriented effort works.

The first initiative in this title would include authorization of funding for state and local implementation of the Common Core State Standards, including aligned assessments, curricula, and professional development. Successful implementation that was sustained over time would model a continuous-improvement strategy, which could lead to its becoming standard practice.

Additionally, this title would require states to develop accountability systems based on transparency. Politically set goals and intensive and extensive testing and arbitrary punishments designed by people in Washington alienate rather than motivate people in the field.

New state-designed systems with limited numbers of high-stakes tests would focus on making steady improvement around closing achievement gaps and increasing overall achievement and graduation rates. Use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, by states and the federal government would supplement state systems. PISA is particularly important because it comes the closest of many assessments to effectively measuring important cognitive abilities that require what psychologists call “transfer skills,” taking knowledge from one setting and applying it effectively in another.

Making room for innovation

A third and final ESEA title would establish an applied research, development, evaluation, and innovation program that would supplement current research and development in the Education Department. The new program would be focused on understanding and improving the particular strategies proposed in the first two titles. The program would also include aggressive exploration of the use of information technology to improve educational opportunities of all students in and outside of school.

The approach suggested here is not radical, but it does require members of Congress to consider the development of K-12 legislation in a new way and asks them and state and local governments to focus on critical problems in education today. Unless the Elementary and Secondary Education Act moves away from its anachronistic compliance-based and politically expansive approach, federal legislation will not be able to support states and districts truly interested in dramatically improving schools and student learning.

Marshall S. Smith is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was the dean of education and a professor at Stanford University. He has served in five presidential administrations, including serving as the chief of staff to Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first secretary of education, during the Carter administration; and as a senior adviser to current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He was the undersecretary and acting deputy U.S. secretary of education during the Clinton administration. This commentary was adapted for Education Week from his essay in the book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit (Harvard Education Press, 2011) and was first published in Education Week.

California seeks to dump AYP

Three months ago, California’s proposal for a waiver from parts of the No Child Left Behind law was considered so weak that critics said it wouldn’t pass the federal government’s giggle test. Yesterday, the State Board of Education approved sending a more robust waiver request to Washington, although not through the same channels as most other states.

At issue is the part of NCLB (now commonly referred to by its original title, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) that requires every student to be proficient in math and English Language Arts by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Last fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicly acknowledged what teachers and administrators have known for years: There’s no chance of reaching that goal.

The U.S. Department of Education offered states flexibility on meeting some of the toughest targets of ESEA on the condition that they implement a teacher and principal evaluation system, among other things. So far 38 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have applied for one of Sec. Duncan’s waivers. California has been a holdout, not because state officials don’t want the waiver, but because they believe the teacher and principal evaluation system would be too expensive, and isn’t required under the law.

Instead, the State Board approved submitting a “state-defined waiver” through the general waiver provision written into ESEA that allows the Secretary to approve waivers if states show that they will:

  1. Increase the quality of instruction for students, and
  2. improve the academic achievement of students.

California proposes to achieve those goals primarily by dumping No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress assessment system in favor of a single system using the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), and sharpening the focus of the API to concentrate on improving instruction in schools with the absolute lowest scores and largest achievement gaps.

“It’s time to leave behind No Child Left Behind,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “This request capitalizes on our strengths – our well-established accountability system. It also provides school districts an opportunity to get the relief they deserve now, and the flexibility they need to direct limited funds where they will do the most good.”

If Sec. Duncan approves the waiver, California schools that don’t meet the proficiency targets of AYP would no longer be labeled as failing schools and put into program improvement status.  PI schools are required to use some of their federal Title I funds on things like paying private companies to provide after-school academic programming for students, without requiring them to prove that they’re successful.  According to the State Department of Education, 63 percent of Title I schools are in program improvement.

The State Board wants to let low-performing schools use the money to examine data and use it to improve instruction, provide tutoring and give teachers time to collaborate.

“I don’t think this is at all at odds with what the Administration wants,” said State Board of Education President Mike Kirst following the vote.  “We want relief from the parts of the federal law that aren’t working, but that doesn’t mean we’re retreating from accountability,” he added in a written statement later in the day.  “Our system is better than NCLB at identifying which schools need help.”

The current proposal, while more detailed than the earlier one that was a subject of ridicule, is still short on specifics.  What measures will be used to identify the lowest performing schools?  How will the API be changed to provide deeper information that’s more useful to teachers?  Should the API target be raised from 800 to 875 to provide a more accurate measure of proficiency?  What sort of interventions will be available for schools at the bottom?

“The details matter when it comes to kids,” said Bill Lucia, President and CEO of Edvoice, a nonprofit that works to close the achievement gap.  He described the plan as “a starting point for a conversation.”

Arun Ramanathan is far less convinced of the state’s sincerity.  The Executive Director of EdTrust-West reviewed waiver applications for the U.S. Department of Education.  He said the guidelines require specific plans describing how the state intends to close achievement gaps between subgroups, and California’s letter doesn’t meet that standard.  “As a reviewer of state waiver applications, the letter is actually insulting to those 37 states that did the hard work in al three areas – common core, teacher evaluation and accountability systems.

Federal education officials haven’t indicated publicly which way they’re leaning on California’s application.  Gov. Brown discussed it with Sec. Duncan on a trip to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago.  Observers suspect there may be some back and forth behind the scenes over the summer, but don’t expect a decision before September, when the third round of applications under Sec. Duncan’s waiver process are due.

Whichever way that goes, Sherry Skelly Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, said she’s encouraged because this issue has brought stakeholders and policy makers together at the same table to start talking about how to strengthen the state’s accountability system and evolve the API.  She’s all for giving the proposal as much time as necessary to ensure that, in the end, it’s a well thought out plan and transparent plan.  “I think this dialogue has gotten us started on the right path to do the right thing for California; it’s a catalyst.”

CA may try for NCLB waiver

The State Board of Education will once again consider applying for a waiver from some of the more untenable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, only this time the request is personal.

Instead of applying for the waiver package that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has offered to states, which requires a substantial quid pro quo, the Board next week will discuss seeking relief from some NCLB mandates under a separate waiver provision written into the law.

Secretary Duncan’s waiver package requires states to sign off on a lengthy, and potentially expensive, set of assurances that includes adopting a teacher and principal evaluation system in every school and accelerating implementation of Common Core standards.

41 states and the District of Columbia applied for Sec. Arne Duncan's NCLB waiver package. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
41 states and the District of Columbia applied for Sec. Arne Duncan's NCLB waiver package. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

In February, the U.S. Department of Education granted first-round waivers to eleven states. Another 26 states and the District of Columbia applied for the second round, which will be announced this spring, and four more plus Puerto Rico stated their intention to apply for round three in September.

Following meetings with school districts, education advocacy groups, teachers unions, and state education officials, the State Board of Education wrote a nine-page draft letter to Michael Yudin, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, explaining the financial and legal reasons why California is taking a different route. “California state law requires that the state reimburse local educational agencies for the cost of any state-mandated activities. Given California’s severe, ongoing fiscal challenges, it is impossible for the state or its districts to implement the requirements of the Secretary’s waiver package effectively and within the required timeline, and we are not willing to make promises that we are unable to carry out.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson contends that not only would the cost of the federal requirements be prohibitive, but also that the evaluation component is outside the bounds of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – the once and current name of NCLB.

“NCLB/ESEA is about student academic performance; teacher evaluation is not part of ESEA,” said Christine Swenson, director of the improvement and accountability division in the State Department of Education. “This isn’t appropriate and in California’s view it doesn’t belong in an ESEA waiver.”

California’s offer

A waiver wasn’t any state’s first choice. They were banking on Congress fixing the problems when it reauthorized the law. That was supposed to have happened four years ago. The window has surely closed for now until after the November election.

Reauthorization would be the best path forward, said Sue Burr, Executive Director of the State Board of Education. “In the absence of that, we are asking the federal government to waive those parts of the law that they acknowledge aren’t working.”

Specifically, the state is seeking relief on these fronts:

  • Suspending the requirement that every student has to be proficient or above on state tests by 2014,
  • Eliminating requirements to identify schools and districts that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as program improvement schools that have to take extra measures to improve achievement,
  • Allowing districts greater flexibility in how they use ESEA funds.

The last item ties in to what California would do in exchange for being granted a waiver. Under current law, Title I schools in program improvement for failing to meet AYP must set aside some of their Title I funds for professional development. The state wants to let those schools use the money where it would be “most effective for improving teaching and learning.”

California also wants to essentially do away with AYP and concentrate on its own accountability system with the Academic Performance Index. “The proposal seeks to move us back to a single accountability system that does a better job than NCLB of identifying which schools are truly low-achieving and not improving, so we can focus our efforts there,” said Burr.

California’s system is stronger, said the State Department of Education’s Swenson, because it allows schools to show improvement without being labeled. “API allows you to show growth, and we can make decisions about whether it’s enough growth,” she said. “In the current AYP system, you’re either all fine or all failing; AYP is all or nothing.”

Districts want shot at NCLB waiver

State chiefs of education apparently let U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have it over the idea of letting individual districts apply directly to him for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Their message to him, during an hour-long face to face on Monday, was, according to Education Week: Stay off our turf; we run districts.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has made it clear he’s no fan of Duncan’s waiver offer, which he considers expensive and intrusive, a swapping of one bad set of rules for another; California may not seek a waiver, not under Duncan’s conditions.

But Torlakson, while in Washington, didn’t attend the sit-down with Duncan, and his spokesman, Paul Hefner, said that Torlakson has no objection, in principle, to California districts applying for an NCLB waiver directly from the feds. But he does foresee practical problems that would have to be thought through – if Duncan actually moves ahead with district waivers.

That’s fine with Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent and now executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top effort. CORE districts (now eight, with the new addition of Oakland Unified) want a waiver, believe they’d qualify for one, and will pursue it as soon as Duncan makes up his mind. They want relief next year from NCLB’s sanctions and the chance to spend more Title I dollars as they choose.

EdWeek quoted Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, as saying his organization opposes district waivers unless they’re done in cooperation with a state. Miller says the districts want Torlakson’s support; the CORE districts don’t see the waiver as an end-run around the state.

Miller said he spoke at length this week about the district waiver possibility with State Board President Michael Kirst and will talk with Torlakson, too. The districts will work through the potential roadblocks.

In an email, Hefner listed a few of them:

  • Who would be responsible for monitoring compliance with requirements associated with the waiver? The state? The federal government? How would those costs be absorbed?
  • If a district was required as part of a waiver to adopt a new or modified accountability system, would the state be obligated to modify its data system to accommodate those changes? Who pays for that? Who sets the timetable for system modifications?

Miller agrees that an alternative system of compliance has to be worked out. The cash-strapped state Department of Education would not be involved at all in the district waiver, and the feds won’t have the resources to monitor individual districts ­– potentially dozens of them, if not more. Critics will charge that direct federal oversight would violate states’ rights, even though, Miller says, NCLB does have provisions for district waivers.

Miller suggests that one option might be peer monitoring, with districts holding one another to account.

The CORE districts (Fresno, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sanger, San Francisco, Sacramento City, Clovis, and Oakland, all unified districts), Miller says, agree on the requirements that Duncan has set for a waiver – creating data systems, developing Common Core standards and alternative teacher and principal evaluations, identifying and improving the lowest performing schools – in exchange for suspending NCLB’s sanctions. And they want to move ahead as soon as Duncan decides whether and how to grant district waivers.

Earlier this month, Torlakson proposed that the state seek a California waiver on its own terms, ignoring Duncan’s conditions. Recognizing that Duncan would likely reject it, the State Board took no action. Torlakson agreed to seek other ideas, with the possibility of resubmitting it to the Board in June.

No action yet on NCLB waiver

An unconvinced State Board of Education took no action Wednesday on a request for a wavier from the No Child Left Behind law being pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson’s staff at the California Department of Education will now have another two months, until the State Board’s May meeting, to strengthen its waiver application in what in the end could prove a quixotic effort to persuade U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to make an exception for California.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have responded to demands that Duncan has set for two-year relief from NCLB’s biggest burdens and sanctions. The conditions include implementing the Common Core national standards, adopting a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that uses student achievement as a factor, and creating improvement plans for turning around 15 percent of schools that either are the lowest achieving or have the biggest achievement gaps.

Torlakson’s view is that California has the legal right, as do other states, to a waiver but that California cannot afford some of the conditions – spending hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher training and materials for NCLB – while the timeline for other conditions, such as changing teacher evaluations this year, is too compressed or would be too contentious.

There’s no clear consensus on which route to take. Advocacy groups that include Education Trust-West and Children Now, plus the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top application, want to apply now for Duncan’s waiver, which includes some flexibility in Title I spending for low-income children. But the state PTA, the California Federation of Teachers, and most of two dozen district representatives who attended an information meeting last week on Torlakson’s and CDE’s general waiver concept indicated support for it, according to Fred Tempes, director of the Comprehensive School Assistance Program for WestEd, who conducted the meeting.

What all agree on is the need for immediate relief from the sanctions of NCLB, including its unattainable requirement that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. Nearly all of the state’s schools could be designated as failures – with letters to parents notifying them of that – within two years.

“One hundred percent proficiency leaves every child behind,” Elliott Duchon, superintendent of Jurupa Unified in Riverside County, told the State Board. While he said he supported a general waiver, if that doesn’t work he urged  “keeping the door open to the Duncan waiver.”

Christine Swenson, head of  CDE’s Improvement & Accountability Division, acknowledged that the state has no idea whether federal officials would respond quickly enough to grant relief in 2012-13 if the state were to apply for a general waiver in May. The state could turn around and apply in September for a waiver under Duncan’s conditions, but that wouldn’t take effect until 2013-14.

Until last Friday’s meeting of invited representatives, CDE hadn’t presented its idea for a general waiver. In a summary of the meeting, Tempes wrote that there was agreement that the “CDE’s proposal was not bold enough in describing California’s position” and didn’t point out actions that California was already engaging in to prepare for Common Core.

As reported earlier this week, the Association of California School Administrators has offered specific ways it says could make a general waiver more palatable to Duncan, including a commitment to halve the number of students who aren’t proficient in math and English language arts in six years.

EdVoice, whose president, Bill Lucia, was at last Friday’s meeting, called for enforcing the long-ignored requirement under the current law on teacher and principal evaluations that results on standardized tests be a factor. (EdVoice  is suing Los Angeles Unified on this issue.) Others say that a general waiver offers California the opportunity to present a new accountability system that builds in student growth toward proficiency on tests (as opposed to 100 percent proficiency by a certain date) but also incorporates other metrics, including Gov. Brown’s suggestion in his State of the State address for school inspections.

“No Child Left Behind has done more to create unity about what is wrong with federal involvement in education,” said Board member Patricia Rucker. “But a waiver application needs to be strong and bold not just to get out from under NCLB” but also to present priorities for filling gaps in policy that the state has already acknowledged.

ACSA: Waiver too weak as is

The organization representing state school administrators says that if California wants its request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law to be taken seriously, then the State Board should give Secretary of Education Arne Duncan more of what he is demanding.

The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) is suggesting several amendments that it says would strengthen a waiver request that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s staff at the state Department of Education is recommending to the State Board. Chief among the changes would be a pledge to halve the number of students who are not proficient in math and English language arts over the next six years.

ACSA focused on the area of school accountability, a key part of the waiver proposals. “We believe however, the recommended proposal (by CDE) is too weak for serious consideration by federal officials,” ACSA President Alice Petrossian wrote in a letter last week to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “The CDE proposal offers no real alternative to improving student achievement. While it may be appealing to have unfettered relief we believe it’s very unrealistic.” The State Board will vote on the waiver proposal on Wednesday.

Duncan is offering to give states flexibility from NCLB spending dictates and temporary relief from its severest penalties if they meet four broad conditions he has set. They include creating improvement plans for districts with the biggest achievement gaps and adopting statewide teacher and principal evaluation systems that take student results on standardized tests into consideration.

Eleven states already have received the two-year waivers, which take effect this fall, and 26 others applied by the second-round deadline last week. California still can apply for a third round by Sept. 1, but it would take effect in 2013-14.

From the start, Torlakson has viewed Duncan’s offer as stretching his authority to grant waivers from NCLB – a point highly debated in Washington. He called Duncan’s offer “not so much a waiver as a substitution for a new set of requirements and a new set of challenges.” And he has cited the multibillion-dollar costs of implementing Common Core standards, another condition for the waiver, and uncertainty that the Legislature would act on teacher evaluations this year as reasons the state can’t meet Duncan’s demands.

Instead, Torlakson is recommending that Duncan be asked to use his overall waiver authority to give California immediate, two-year relief: flexibility for districts to use $353 million in Title I dollars and suspension of sanctions against schools deemed failing under NCLB.

ACSA: Commit to making progress

Last fall, when Duncan first announced the waiver idea, ACSA’s board recommended that the state pursue it. ACSA still prefers that option, said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s lobbyist, but it can support a request for a general NCLB waiver, as the state Department of Education is proposing, if it is strengthened.

One of district superintendents’ chief complaints about NCLB is that schools are labeled as failures under the federal measures even though they meet growth targets under the state’s performance index.

That wouldn’t change under CDE’s proposal. Although the sanctions would be suspended for two years, NCLB’s chief – and generally scorned – requirement, that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014, would remain in effect. So over the next two years, hundreds, if not thousands, of additional schools would be given the scarlet “F” even if, for now, there would be no additional consequences.

Instead, ACSA is proposing that California agree to Duncan’s requirement that districts commit to reduce the proportion of remaining non-proficient students by 50 percent over six years. Consistent with that, the state would raise the target API score for schools and districts, now 800, to 838 (halfway to 875, signifying that all students, on average, would be at grade level).

ACSA is also suggesting that CDE do something else that Duncan is requiring: identify the 15 percent of schools that are either the worst-performing schools or those with the biggest achievement gaps and require that districts create plans to turn them around. “This commitment is in keeping with ACSA’s position that federal and state accountability should be focused on the lowest performing schools while higher performing schools are more autonomous,” Petrossian’s letter said.

CDE’s waiver plan doesn’t deal with the issue of teacher and principal evaluations. Its position is that it’s the Legislature’s prerogative to change current law.

ACSA isn’t suggesting that the state commit to mandating a new evaluation system that requires some use of student achievement as a measure. But, in a nod to Duncan, it does recommend that the state at least “commit to developing ‘voluntary’ state guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations” while the Legislature sorts through changes in the law.

“While not perfect, ACSA’s amendments make for a stronger, more viable plan,” Petrossian wrote. “We would rather be rejected making our best effort then go through an exercise in futility.”

Along with ACSA, superintendents of the seven districts that led the state’s application for Race to the Top money also have called for pursuing Duncan’s waiver. The districts, which include Los Angeles Unified, Fresno Unified, and Sacramento City Unified, have continued their work through a nonprofit, the California Office to Reform Education. Its executive director, Rick Miller, is a former deputy state superintendent.

“We support all ideas for needed flexibility for schools failing under No Child Left Behind,” Miller told me this week. “We’re in favor of a general waiver if we can get relief, but I have grave doubts whether it (CDE’s proposal before the State Board) will be acceptable to the feds.”

More gain, no pain NCLB waiver

Gov. Jerry Brown described his relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a “work in progress” after a face-to-face meeting last week in Washington. Californians will soon find out how much progress if the State Board of Education next week approves a very different request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law than the one Duncan will be expecting.

Again assuming the role of the nonconformist state, California would ask Duncan for immediate relief from NCLB’s spending constraints and penalties without having to jump through the hoops that Duncan is demanding of other states. One of those is the adoption of a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would include student test scores  as a factor – a requirement that the California Teachers Association staunchly opposes.

“California state law and our current fiscal condition make it virtually impossible to implement all of the waiver requirements in every district and school in the state,” says a draft letter to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin that would be signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board President Michael Kirst if the State Board approves. Unlike other states that have applied for a waiver, California would not try to negotiate a better deal. The state would argue that the waiver is warranted in its own right; districts want it, and student achievement would ultimately rise if California could be out from under much of NCLB.

The federal Department of Education thus far has granted waivers to 11 states; the next deadline, to which several dozen states may apply, is this week. A final deadline is Sept. 1, but it would be too late for a waiver for the 2012-13 school year. California would ask for an immediate two-year waiver.

Torlakson, who has called Duncan’s waiver requirements an overreaching swap of one set of burdens for another, is pushing the “state-devised” waiver idea. State Board Executive Director Sue Burr has followed its development and presumably informed Brown, another sharp critic of NCLB, the Race to the Top competition, and other Obama administration education reforms.

Brown probably has a better chance of trouncing Duncan one on one in basketball than California has in getting the waiver approved. But California would be making a point with its request: The waiver that the state is seeking is justifiable and permissible; it’s Duncan who is stretching his authority by demanding concessions for a waiver beyond what’s contained in NCLB.

California is not asking for all of the benefits from a waiver that Duncan is offering but it is seeking the primary ones: flexibility to use $353 million in Title I money now restricted to tutoring and transporting students to their districts of choice, and release from having to identify and prescribe turnaround programs for schools identified as failing under NCLB. In testimony before the State Board, superintendents have cited these benefits in calling for the state to pursue Duncan’s waiver option. Districts with Title I schools – about 60 percent of the state’s 10,000 schools – would still have to spend the money on low-income students, but could use it, say, for preparing teachers for Common Core standards or for their own school improvement plans outside of NCLB’s limited models.

In return, Duncan is requiring that states commit to:

  • Adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. California has partly met this by adopting the Common Core standards, but the state Department of Education estimates that the state and districts would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years in training teachers and purchasing textbooks – money the state doesn’t have or, in the case of instructional materials, lacks the current authority to approve. Other states have negotiated the deadline.
  • Create a new school accountability system that identifies 15 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps or the worst performance and create improvement plans for them. High-performing schools would be rewarded. State officials assert that Duncan is requiring adoption of a new state assessment system that tracks student growth from year to year, even though Common Core assessments would replace them in two years.
  • Pass a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators while providing value-added student test scores to math and English language arts teachers. State education officials point out that the state cannot promise that the Legislature will revise the current Stull Act and, if it did, that unions and school boards in the every school district would negotiate the adoption next year.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said the Superintendent considers the state’s proposed waiver “a third way” – a reasonable solution to districts’ need for flexibility and consistent with the “spirit of the law’s waiver authority.”

First round of NCLB waivers

In early March, the State Board of Education will decide whether California will apply for the waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that the federal Department of Education awarded to an initial 10 states on Thursday. While not ruling out that possibility, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson hinted strongly Thursday that he remains inclined not to go there.

“California has rejected No Child Left Behind as a broken system that has not worked for our schools or our students,” Torlakson said in a statement. “The law’s failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another.”

Inflexibility must be in the eye of the beholder. In announcing the initial waivers yesterday, President Obama emphasized that flexibility is what makes his offer for a waiver attractive. “So when it comes to fixing what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind, we’ve offered every state the same deal. We’ve said, if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards. We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return.”

Eleven states applied for the NCLB waiver in the first round last fall; all but New Mexico received it, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday that its approval was likely. Three other states – Florida, Oklahoma, and Georgia – have received conditional approval, pending actions by their state legislatures or governing boards. The other seven states with waivers are Massachusetts, Tennessee, New Jersey, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Colorado. Twenty-eight additional states and Washington, D.C., have indicated that they intend to seek a waiver by the next deadline, at the end of this month. The deadline for the next and final round hasn’t been set but is expected to be in June.

Congress, President at loggerheads over NCLB renewal

Obama has said he is moving ahead with a waiver because Congress has failed for five years to fix NCLB; in a presidential election year, it’s also unlikely to. In exchange for committing to action in three broad areas, the administration would release states from NCLB’s  primary requirement  – that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 – along with the harsh penalties that schools have faced for failing to meet annual targets toward that goal. Districts would be free to spend Title I money that would have gone toward NCLB compliance on their own plans for student achievement. That’s one reason why a number of superintendents, including those from Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach, Sacramento City, and Fresno, have written the State Board or testified in support of a waiver. Another reason is that the waiver would free them from a rigid accountability system that will soon classify nearly all Title I schools as academic failures, even those making significant progress by the state’s own metric, the Academic Performance Index.

But Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown argue that broke California has no money to implement new commitments to reforms, especially on the three-year deadline that a waiver would demand. And Brown, like Torlakson, has been criticizing federal overreach in areas they – along with Republicans in Congress – say should best be left to the states.

In exchange for the waiver, states would have to:

  • Commit to establishing career and college readiness standards. California has done this by adopting the Common Core standards. Implementing them would require training teachers and buying textbooks and materials. The State Department of Education projects the cost at more than $800 million, although federal officials have indicated they’d work with California on a realistic timetable.
  • Create and implement plans for turning around the worst-performing 5 percent of Title I schools and an additional 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps, while recognizing top-performing schools, too. Here again, the State Department of Education estimates high – about $400 million – based on existing federal turnaround models and $235 million in paying teachers for collaboration time. The federal guidelines suggest no dollar figures, and California could present a less costly approach.
  • Put in place a system to evaluate every teacher and principal using multiple yardsticks that include a “significant” use of test scores. This requirement is most troubling to Brown and the State Board as well as critics who say Obama is overstepping his authority by exceeding the scope of NCLB. The much maligned and inadequate Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law governing teacher evaluations, won’t meet Obama’s criteria for evaluations. While there appears to be universal agreement that teacher evaluations should be strengthened, there’s no consensus as to how, so it’s unclear whether the Legislature will pass an alternative this year.

Although most districts evaluate principals regularly, there is no state requirement, so this would be a new state mandate. (Correction: The Stull Act applies to all “certificated” employees, so principals are covered by current law. Note to John Mockler: You were right.)

As for the cost, Torlakson’s Ed Dept. pegs the net cost of a new evaluation system at $639 per teacher, although, here again, that figure, minus a law, is conjecture – and probably high. If all of the state’s 305,000 teachers are evaluated yearly, that’s nearly $200 million. An NCLB waiver would apply to every school, not only those receiving Title I dollars.

By contrast, Democratic Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, sponsor of AB 5, the primary teacher evaluation bill now in play, puts the total cost at closer to $30 million to $35 million ; subtract the current $19 million statewide cost of the Stull Act, and the net cost to the state would be $16 million, an estimate that may be too low and would depend on how often teachers are evaluated, whether peer review is included in the process and whether there is follow-up professional development.

Cost aside, neither Brown nor Torlakson may want a huge battle over teacher evaluations – and the use of test scores – in an election year, with the governor depending on California Teachers Assn. money and support for his tax initiative in November.

Election-year calculus infuses the debate over the waiver in Washington, too. At some point, Congress must reauthorize the next-generation NCLB that will supersede conditions of a waiver. Some urge caution in seeking something that could vanish.

Others argue that the state should go for a waiver now, while there is a window of opportunity to push a California-centric version of school reform. Obama and Duncan might not be in office after November anyway to force the state to keep its promises, the argument goes.

What the State Board will argue won’t be known for a few more weeks.

A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,'” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.
Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,'” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”

Low-income schools shortchanged

Being proven right is usually a cause for some self-satisfaction, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was troubled Wednesday when he announced results of a new Department of Education study on Title I and other high-poverty schools.

“Today, we’re releasing key findings that confirm an unfortunate reality in our nation’s education system,” said Duncan during a phone call with journalists. “Many public schools serving low-income children aren’t getting their fair share of state and local funding.” (Read Duncan’s entire statement here.)

Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

By “many” Duncan means a lot. More than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less per student on salaries than non-Title I schools within the same district, according to the first-of-its-kind study. U.S. Department of Education researchers examined teacher salaries and spending on other resources for more than 13,000 school districts across the country. Schools had to submit the information as a requirement for receiving funds under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Of California’s 10,000 or so schools, well over 6,000 receive funds from the federal Title I program to provide additional support for children considered at risk due to poverty. The Department of Education’s report came one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that more than one in five U.S. children live in poverty, an increase of over a million children between 2009 and 2010.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA is the previous and soon to be subsequent name of No Child Left Behind), schools eligible for Title I funding first have to receive state and local funding that’s comparable to the amount given to non-Title I schools. Since about 80 percent of funding goes to salaries, it should be simple to calculate. However, the definition of comparability was compromised by a loophole in Title I language that allows reporting by district-wide salary averages rather than by individual schools.

Here’s the legalese version as written in the law (a note of caution: skip this if you’re prone to dizziness):

(B) Determinations – For the purpose of this subsection, in the determination of expenditures per pupil from State and local funds, or instructional salaries per pupil from State and local funds, staff salary differentials for years of employment shall not be included in such determinations.

The loophole makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to know whether districts are giving Title I schools at least an equal amount of state and local funds as the rest of the schools in the district.

“In far too many places Title I money is filling budget gaps rather than being used to close achievement gaps,” said Duncan.

That would change if the reauthorization of ESEA authored by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) makes it through Congress. They’ve inserted language to close the loophole.

California takes the lead

In its usual ambivalent fashion, California is a bit ahead of the rest of the nation in requiring better reporting, but is not doing so well in ensuring that the data is accurate and uniform. In 2005, California passed SB 687, the first law in the country requiring every district to report per-pupil spending annually – including teacher salaries – on a school-by-school basis. The bill, by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), amended the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC: detailed reports containing demographics and other information that every school must complete and make public.

One problem with SARC, said attorney John Affeldt with Public Advocates, is that the State Department of Education has not provided clear guidance on the reporting categories. In a report he co-authored on SB 687, titled “Lifting the Fog of Averages,” one example, said Affeldt, is that while some districts include librarians in the same group as teachers, others put librarians in a different pot. And when counting people who work at more than one school, such as custodians and resource specialists, some districts will divvy up the salary among all the schools, while others make it a district expenditure.

“A key next step for federal and state policy is to move toward having all districts follow the same decision rules in accounting for expenditures,” said Affeldt. “That way, we will finally be able to compare school-level spending across districts and even across states.”

For now, the ambiguity in the law, especially in Title I, allows districts to continue the practice of putting the lowest-paid

Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.
Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.

teachers, i.e., the least experienced, to work in the highest-poverty schools.

California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is attempting to take SB 687 a step or two further.  Her bill, AB 18, would create a weighted student funding formula that would give schools more money for each low-income child enrolled.  AB 18 is on a two-year track, and should be taken up in the next legislative session.

But Duncan insists that states and districts don’t need to rewrite their funding formulas to abide by the intent of Title I.  Most districts would have to change only 1 to 4 percent of their total school-level expenditures in order to provide comparable funding for their Title I and high-poverty schools, said Duncan.  But that small shift could be huge for Title I schools, bringing an increase in funding of between 4 and 15 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education has put a searchable database on line for educators, parents, policymakers and anyone in the public to see how their local districts stack up in funding high-poverty schools.  From there, Duncan said he hopes to get a national conversation going. Only Congress can change the actual law, said Duncan, but that doesn’t mean that school districts can’t start doing the right thing.