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:
- Increase the quality of instruction for students, and
- 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.”