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.”

SIGnificant improvementS

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.

Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.

Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report).  Click to enlarge.
Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report). Click to enlarge.

The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.

In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.

“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”

Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”

California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.

Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.

“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum.  So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.

Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said.  “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”

What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.

Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience.  “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release.  “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”

Community colleges hurt by CSU freeze

President Obama has called community colleges “the unsung heroes of America’s education system.” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “no other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.” Yet community colleges can’t catch a break.

Two days after California State University announced unprecedented curbs in enrollment, including closing down applications for the spring 2013 semester and possibly wait-listing all freshmen applicants for the following fall, the state’s community colleges are assessing the damage.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity in Los Angeles. “Students can’t get the courses they need to transfer and when they do, the doors are being shut.”

The Community College Chancellor’s office estimates that several hundred thousand students have been turned away in recent years because $800 million in budget cuts since 2008-09 has forced the schools to eliminate thousands of classes.  Closing off spring admission will knock out another 16,000 or more, mostly community college transfer students.

“If the students can’t get in in the spring, it simply means they’re with us longer,” said Brian Murphy, president of De Anza Community College in Cupertino. “I think for a lot of them, the notion is I’ll complete more units and reapply.”

Annual number of community college transfers to CSU, UC, In-state private and out-of-state private four year colleges.  (Source:  CA Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.
Annual number of community college transfers to CSU, UC, in-state private, and out-of-state private four-year colleges. (Source: CA Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.

De Anza has one of the highest transfer rates to UC and CSU of all the community colleges. It sent more than 1,400 students to Cal State schools last year. Statewide, the number is close to 57,000 transfers. If those students can’t move on, they either leave school halfway to their goals or stay in community college and wait, because the process of getting into CSU as a current community college student is easier than as a former student.

That will put those already hard-to-get classes even further out of reach as students who normally would have moved on remain in community college, taking up seats that should be going to new students. That creates a backup in the cycle of the system, explained Rich Copenhagen, a member of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. “We’re very concerned that this will make students not pursue higher education at community colleges because they’ll be less likely to transfer, which will have an impact on the future of the state.”

Ever since the Cal State announcement, Copenhagen said his classmates in the Peralta Community College District have been contacting him. Copenhagen says students are worried. “The amount of concern I’m getting is unusual,” he said, but attributes it to how close to home this hits. “People don’t tend to identify with the cuts until it directly affects them. A lot of people aspire to transfer to CSU, so when CSU proposes cutting transfers it raises a lot of red flags.”

Impacted wisdom

The only exceptions are students in one of the majors established through SB 1440, the Student Transfer Reform Act of 2010, that created a seamless and guaranteed transfer pathway from community college to Cal State. Since it’s so new, just a few hundred students are affected. But even their choices are limited.

Of the 23 campuses in the CSU system, only eight are available for SB 1440 students: Channel Islands, Chico, East Bay, Fullerton, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Sonoma. The Chancellor’s Office is trying to spread the load so no one campus is overwhelmed. There’s no guarantee that students will be admitted to the campus closest to where they live, however, even though community college students tend to have ties to their local communities.

“They are disproportionately students of color, and what we know about students of color is that they’re more likely to have family relationships that require them to stay at home,” said Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. And that, said Lay, gets into important economic and social justice issues.

A number of Cal State colleges are on the verge of, or are already affected for regular admissions, meaning they have reached their enrollment limits in some or all majors. Once that happens, the campus can raise admission requirements.

Fullerton, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo are over-enrolled in every major and this week, San Jose State is holding required public hearings before announcing their designation. That troubles De Anza’s Murphy. He said about 60 percent of his transfer students go to San Jose State, and nearly three-quarters of his students have full-time jobs.

“Being told that there’s a spot for you in Southern California is what we might call an illusory admission,” said Murphy. “The number of working-class students who can disrupt their entire lives to go to another part of the state is an admission without meaning.”

These barriers are butting up against efforts to increase college completion rates in California and nationwide. CSU’s Graduation Initiative seeks to increase its graduation rate by 8 percent by 2015-16. The Student Success Task Force just spent a year studying the best ways to boost community college completion at the behest of the Legislature. Yet many of those same lawmakers continue to approve budgets with hundreds of millions in higher education cuts.

“There can be lots of pious talk about completion rates and graduation rates,” said Murphy, “but none of it has the ability to trump the cutbacks in recent years.”

Racial disparity in school discipline

In nine out of California’s ten largest school districts African American and Hispanic students are suspended and expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.
Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

In San Francisco, where African American students compose 11.9 percent of the total enrollment, they accounted for 42.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 60 percent of all expulsions. Hispanic students make up 24.6 percent of the student population in Capistrano School District, yet they received 46.3 percent of out-of-school suspensions and, although there were only five expulsions, all were Hispanic students. [Click here for look at all ten districts].

Nationwide, African American students make up 18 percent of the students in the Civil Rights Data Collection [CRDC] sample, but accounted for 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. The survey included more than 72,000 schools serving about 85 percent of the nation’s kindergarten through twelfth grade students.

“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.  “It is our collective duty to change that.”

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali released the data Tuesday afternoon at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. It covered the 2009-10 school year.  The Department had been issuing discipline data every two years, but it was suspended during the George W. Bush administration.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the Department of Education for resuming the data collection and release as the first step toward investigating districts that may be violating federal civil rights law. “Instead of creating equal opportunities for all of our students to thrive, too many schools are still stuck in an educational caste system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, who pledged to support the Department’s efforts to enforce the law.

The information is especially useful in California, where districts are required to report the number of suspensions and expulsion but don’t have to disaggregate the data. “We know that looking at this data is essential to understanding what’s going on in any specific school district or school site,” said Diana Tate Vermeire, director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California.

Tate Vermeire sees a shift among the public and advocacy organizations to do something about the bias indicated by the data. “There’s never been a concerted effort to look at the issue of over-disciplining students,” she said, “and I think the tide is changing as there is more research tying disproportionate discipline to increased dropout rates and to poor grades.”

California legislators have introduced seven bills this session aimed at providing alternatives – or, what some advocates describe as “common sense” approaches – to dealing with student behavior problems.  Although federal and state law require students to be expelled for specific actions that fall under “zero tolerance” policies, administrators have wide discretion for all other behaviors, and that’s the area the bills address.

California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.
California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.

Under SB 1235 by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students, “or a numerically significant racial or ethnic subgroup of that enrollment,” during one academic year would have to implement research-backed strategies aimed at changing the behaviors that lead to suspensions.  [Click here for list of all the bills].

Steinberg acknowledged that sometimes schools have to take the most severe action in order to protect students, faculty and staff, but warned that when those punishments are overused for minor infractions they can backfire. “When students are kicked out of school, they lose valuable class time and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and get into even more trouble on the streets.”

So many students are affected in some low-income communities that when the California Endowment asked residents in fourteen neighborhoods what they would change in order to improve the health and education of young people, high levels of harsh school discipline came up in nine of those neighborhoods.

“We know that it’s important to hold kids accountable, but it’s more important to prevent the behavior by teaching conflict resolution and other approaches that are more positive,” said Mary Lou Fulton, senior project manager at the California Endowment.  A pilot program run by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which focuses on making amends or restitution for harm caused to people or the school, and working out conflicts non-violently, has reduced suspensions at Oakland’s Cole Middle School by 87 percent.  The results were so powerful that it’s expanding throughout the district.

The American Psychological Association has been promoting restorative justice for several years, especially an Association task force found no evidence that zero tolerance programs make schools safer or improve the school climate.

District officials need to ask themselves if the approach to school discipline they’re using is getting better result for the students and the schools, said Fulton.  “If it’s not helping students succeed, then why continue to go down this path?  There are so many difficult problems in California education.  This is something that can be solved; we know how to fix it.”

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.”

Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

California wins early learning grant

California has won a $52.6 million grant for early childhood education programs through the federal government’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.  US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius announced the nine winners of the $500 million competitive grant program at a White House press event this morning.

“It’s great for our state,” said Scott Moore,  senior policy advisor with Preschool California, which helped write California’s application. The state’s proposal was unique because it calls for locally-based programming rather than a large statewide grant.  Sixteen regional consortia in the state will share 85 percent of the funds and most of the decision making.

This is a “recognition that what California is poised to do is seen as cutting edge and leading in the nation in terms of providing, especially low income children and children starting to fall behind, the chance to catch up and the chance to be ready for school,” said Moore.

California was among nine states awarded grants;  35 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico applied.  The state had been seeking $100 million dollars, but a note on the U.S. Department of Education website says there wasn’t enough money to meet that request (see box at right).

Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source:  US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source: US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, said the Department of Education will consult with the consortia members about how to proceed with less money.  The options range from reducing the number of regions in the consortia or keeping it at 16 and having each of them do a little less – perhaps working with fewer schools or not holding as many training sessions.  “I think it will still be a robust implementation,” said Burr.

The California plan calls for developing a tiered quality rating system to encourage early childhood programs to have quality teachers and quality instructional materials, and to make sure they’re aligned with the skills children will need when they enter kindergarten.

The grant almost didn’t make it to the federal government.  As we reported here, Gov. Jerry Brown waited until the eleventh hour to finalize the application and sign off on it.

In a statement released this morning, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “this grant will help more California children get good care and a good start at learning, which we know is key to their long-term success, at school and beyond.”

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.

LAUSD, feds reach rights accord

Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to vast improvements in the way it teaches English learners and African American students after a 19-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found students were being denied equal educational opportunities.

Even after years in the district, many English learners were languishing in ESL classes, never becoming fluent in English and therefore being shut out of the core academic classes they needed to graduate and enroll in college or job-training programs. Nearly 30 percent of the district’s 678,000 students are classified as English learners.

“In education, too few public school students who are not native English speakers learn English well enough, or fast enough, to prepare them for other core academic coursework, or for life after the school age years,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali announced the voluntary agreement before the Los Angeles School Board Tuesday, calling it the first successful settlement of a civil rights enforcement action taken under the Obama administration.

Ali’s office launched the investigation in March 2010 as a compliance review to examine what was happening in the district, not in response to any complaints. It was expanded to include a look at resources and academic opportunities for African American students following complaints by local civil rights organizations and, reportedly, some Los Angeles area members of Congress.

Ali called the resolution “a model for the country” during a telephone call with reporters, and said it “will have an impact that exceeds the borders of Los Angeles and indeed California as a whole.”

Under the settlement, the district pledged to rewrite its Master Plan for English Learners describing how it will improve English language instruction and prepare English learners to take the academic subjects they need to be on track to graduate from high school ready for college.

The plan will also include coaching and professional development to improve the quality of teachers who work with English learners and African American students.

Resources for African American students

In a separate set of actions, the district agreed to implement eight plans targeted at providing equal academic resources for African American students.

  • Gifted and talented program: Develop a district-wide plan to address the disproportionate participation of black and Hispanic students in GATE.
  • Technology resources: Increase the student/computer ratio in each school and provide more technology-based instruction.
  • Library resources: Increase library collections and make sure all schools have an electronic database of library resources.
  • Community school pilot project: Develop a community school in the area serving Annalee and Leapwood Elementary Schools that includes health and social services, encourage community participation in improving student achievement, and build a sustainable and replicable model to close the achievement gap for African American students.
  • College preparedness and career readiness: Develop a program to provide college and career readiness by providing support and information to help African American students prepare for college academics.
  • Academic language proficiency: Included in the English Learners Master Plan, the district will address the language proficiency needs of African American students beginning in elementary school.
  • Equal access to effective teachers: Be accountable for learning and support by providing professional development and monitoring instruction. Also, develop a plan to increase attendance for students and staff to a minimum of 96 percent.
  • Discipline: Analyze disciplinary policies, practices, and data and use that information to modify policies, where statistics show disproportionate discipline against African American students.

Ali praised the school district for cooperating with the investigation and the remedies. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said that improving graduation rates and academic performance of English learners and African American students is the district’s greatest challenge.

But some civil rights advocates say the plan seems vague. “I can’t tell whether it’s simply that the district is going to develop a program regarding English learner students’ college preparedness,” said a former administration official. “It doesn’t say that they’re actually going to meet any goal or how they’re going to get there.”

They hit all the right areas, agreed John Affeldt, a civil rights attorney with Public Advocates who specializes in educational equity issues. “It’s pretty sweeping in scope what they’re promising to do, but it’s pretty short on benchmarks and enforcement details.”

There’s no immediate deadline for putting all the pieces in place. The Office for Civil Rights will monitor the agreement and won’t sign off until LAUSD is in full compliance with civil rights laws. In the meantime, said Ali, OCR officials may pop in to check the district’s progress.