NCLB waivers not automatic

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson won’t be with 20 other state education chiefs at the White House today when President Obama formally announces a waiver deal to free states from the tightening screws of the No Child Left Behind Act. Torlakson’s absence reflects California’s uncertainty over the still sketchy details of the waiver program – and its ambivalence.

Like other states, California could greatly benefit from the relaxation of sanctions for failing to meet the law’s core requirement, that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014.  The state would also welcome more flexibility in spending NCLB’s Title I dollars and the freedom to design improvement plans for schools with big gaps in student achievement.

It’s uncertain if California would even meet some of the conditions required for a waiver and, if it doesn’t, whether Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown would favor doing what’s necessary to qualify. Potentially the biggest obstacle: the Obama administration’s demand that each state adopt guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation systems that include tracking student progress – most likely using standardized test scores as the measure.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said officials haven’t seen enough details yet to comment on the proposal.

AB 5, a bill that would overhaul the teacher evaluation process and set parameters for all districts to follow, still needs work and was turned into a two-year bill last month. In its current form, it wouldn’t even take effect for several years. At that point, individual districts would still have to create their own versions after negotiations with local teachers unions.

Meanwhile, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be inviting states to apply for waivers starting in November, with the second wave of applications in January, according to senior administration officials.

“To help states, districts, and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change,” Obama said in a statement released Thursday. Administration officials, in a briefing with reporters, insisted that waivers “were not a reprieve from accountability ­– not a step back.”  Instead, the waivers will “provide flexibility in exchange for a real commitment (by states and districts) to undertake change.”

With the reauthorization of NCLB already four years late and no sign that Congress will reach a bipartisan consensus on major elements, administration officials said waivers were needed to fix a “broken” and outdated law. Noting that within the past year, 44 states (including California) had adopted  the Common Core standards, with their emphasis on college and career readiness, and 46 states are developing new assessments, administration officials said that NCLB (formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Eduction Act) is standing in the way of reforms. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that without waivers, 80 percent of schools nationwide would be deemed failures under NCLB. ** There have been rumblings of revolt, with state officials, Torlakson included, suggesting they might simply ignore NCLB’s increasing penalties.

Obama’s imprint for reauthorization

By proposing waivers, the administration is recasting the debate and filling the vacuum of congressional inaction by pressing ahead with its own blueprint for reform, while requiring states to recommit to NCLB’s original intent: focus attention on disparities in achievement among minority and low-income students.

Obama is proposing no additional money for NCLB; however, states granted waivers could freely use the 20 percent of NCLB funds now reserved for tutoring and transporting students who exercise school choice. This would amount to about $1 billion nationwide, officials estimated.

Waivers will be open to all states, and, unlike Race to the Top, will not be a competition. States will have to write a plan addressing three basic requirements:

  • Adoption of career and college readiness standards and a plan to implement them. That translates to preparing students to graduate from high school without the need for remediation in college and ready for a job market demanding high-level skills. In adopting Common Core standards, California would meet this requirement.
  • Plans for identifying and improving the lowest performing 15 percent of schools. This would include the worst performing 5 percent of schools now covered through School Improvement Grants. It’s unclear whether states would be limited to the four restrictive turnaround models or could try alternatives. But districts would have more latitude with “focus schools,” the additional 10 percent of schools identified for low-performing subgroups of students.

In a letter to Duncan last month, Torlakson called for the right to adopt California’s accountability system, which is based on growth in student proficiency, as measured by increases in schools’ API scores. But over the years, the federal government has objected to California’s growth model for technical reasons  and lately has indicated unhappiness with the state’s failure to expand its statewide student data system. The state presumably would have to face these issues.

  • Creation of a teacher and principal evaluation system that, according to a fact sheet released yesterday, will be “based on multiple valid measures, including student progress over time and multiple measures of professional practice,” with the results used to help teachers improve how they teach.

Anticipating that Obama would impose those three requirements as a condition for a waiver, Torlakson in his letter questioned the appropriateness of bypassing Congress. “The appropriate forum for consideration of any new legal mandates is through the reauthorization process involving transparency and Congressional democratic debate,” he wrote.

Mixed reactions

Congressional Republican leaders responded similarly yesterday. U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, told The New York Times. “This sets a dangerous precedent. Make no mistake — this is a political move that could have a damaging impact on Congressional efforts to enact lasting reforms to current elementary and secondary education law.”

But his Democratic counterpart on the committee, California Congressman George Miller, who represents the East Bay, endorsed the waiver process, which he said would “provide states with a coherent path forward … and continue the tenets of NCLB to provide high standards, provide accountability, and make sure we meet the civil rights demands of the law.”

Two organizations that often are at odds on education reform, Oakland-based Education Trust-West and the National Education Assn., also expressed support.

“Our state’s leaders have been consistently critical of NCLB and asked for relief from its requirements without presenting a real vision for closing California’s persistent achievement gaps,” Ed Trust-West said in a statement. “They now have the flexibility to develop a new accountability system focused on cutting our state’s achievement gaps in half. They also have an opportunity to reform our broken teacher evaluation system and guarantee access to college- and career-ready curriculum for all students.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in an interview that the White House is replacing the unrealistic 2014 deadline of 100 percent proficiency with “ambitious and achievable” goals that states should support. Giving districts more control to plan school improvement is essential, he said. “We want to have more flexibility to take advantage of the creativity and innovation taking place in schools around the country.”

“I’m very hopeful. I think the students of America deserve and need relief from NCLB,” Van Roekel said.

Update: The seven districts that comprise CORE (California Office to Reform Education) and 1 million students in California also endorsed the waiver process today and made this offer: “We strongly urge the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and California State Board of Education to apply for the NCLB waiver. CORE is eager and available to work with the Board and the California Department of Education to help draft a plan that will ensure flexibility for California and allow us to make changes to our system that will better serve our students.” CORE consists of  seven unified districts: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Clovis, Sanger and Sacramento City.

** That may be an exaggeration. Because of exemptions under the safe-harbor provision, an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California predicted that only about half of California schools would end up in Program Improvement. See earlier story.

Tom Torlakson’s blueprint

Create a Commission on Educator Excellence to jump-start policies on teacher and principal development; increase the adoption of digital materials; incorporate phys ed  into a school’s API score.

These are among dozens of recommendations in Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s “Blueprint for Great Schools,” a 25-page report released on Tuesday. Seven months in the making, it’s the product of his massive transition team, 59 advisers consisting of  parents, business leaders, teachers, academicians, and school administrators.

Sweeping in its scope, the report makes a number of reasonable suggestions without hard edges – a reflection of Torlakson’s consensus style, temperament, and interests: teacher training, career-technical education, and early childhood education.

In California’s fractured division of K-12 responsibilities, Torlakson doesn’t set policy; the State Board does. But his priorities also match up well with those of Gov. Jerry Brown, State Board President Michael Kirst, who chaired Torlakson’s school finance subcommittee, and key Democratic legislators, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in particular. And, from all appearances, Torlakson and the State Board are making great efforts to work together. So there’s a chance that some of the report’s proposals – especially those not requiring substantial new money – may gain traction. The report also has the weight of the transition team’s two co-chairs, Stanford University School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Revive languishing programs for teachers

Budget cuts, combined with flexible spending, have shrunk teacher and administrator development and training programs. California has cut or malnourished model programs – like BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment), Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) – for mentoring underperforming teachers, as well as School Leadership Academies. There is little collaboration time left for teachers.

The Commission on Educator Excellence will focus on reviving some of these programs. Darling-Hammond, who chaired the educator quality subcommittee and has agreed to serve on the State Commission on Teacher Credentialing, champions another idea which the report says could “dramatically strengthen educator preparation”:  enforcing the new performance assessments that all beginning teachers must take and using the results to measure the quality of teacher preparation programs.

An effective teacher and administrator evaluation system would be the glue binding these programs together. The report does recommend the creation of one without venturing into the hot-button details, other than to say the new system should incorporate “appropriate evidence of student learning.”

Integrating career technical education or “linked learning” into high school while better aligning K-12 courses with college and career expectations is a focus of the report. It urges removing the constraints that  A-G – the courses required for admission to a CSU or UC school – and standardized tests have imposed in discouraging students to take, and schools to offer, courses in engineering, biotechnology, and technology. They are electives, not sciences, under A-G.

It also recommends removing barriers preventing high school students from taking community college courses and – listen up, Jerry Brown – urges linking CALPADS, the K-12 student database, with higher education and workforce databases to track students’ records of success.

Other recommendations include:

  • Building on a process started by Gov. Schwarzenegger, speed up the instructional materials adoption process to allow more digital materials and create incentives to provide inexpensive Internet and computing devices to all students. “It may be structured as a  public-private investment as long as the benefits are provided for all kids,” Darling-Hammond told me;
  • Revise the high school exit exam to make it more relevant to preparing for college and career goals;
  • Protect First Five State Commission and county commissions’ funding to preserve vital services for children up to age five;
  • Develop a web of support for children, maternal education, and home visits to infants;
  • Increase access to high-quality summer learning programs, especially all-day programs that blend recreation and academic support;
  • Support legislation allowing passage of a parcel tax by a 55 percent majority vote;
  • Create incentives for district consolidation to save money;
  • Use emerging technologies for more efficient operations and improvements in instruction; revise regulations on minimum instruction time to capture efficiency.

California switches test consortiums

In a decision with long-term policy implications, California has switched membership in the state-led consortiums that will create the standardized tests for the new nationwide Common Core math and English Language Arts standards.

California will become one of 18  governing states in the 30-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. It is most closely identified with one of its chief advisers, Stanford University School of Education Professor and author Linda Darling-Hammond, an advocate for teachers and a sharp critic of the current generation of  standardized tests.

Gov. Jerry Brown, Supt. Of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst signed a memorandum of understanding committing California to SMARTER Balanced. Last year, their predecessors in office had signed up California as a participating member in the other consortium, Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC), which has two dozen states.

Choice of observing or shaping

California had the option of choosing one consortium in a decision-making capacity or joining both as observers. A number of  education leaders had recommended the latter option for now, until it becomes clearer which consortium could better deliver on its promises. A half dozen states are members of both.

Others argued California should be in the driver’s seat. “I think we should be in a leadership position,” Torlakson said, “so that we can better shape the outcome.” As a governing member, California can vote on decisions and have representatives on various technical and policy committees.

The federal government has awarded the two consortiums $360 million to develop the assessments by 2014-15, a daunting schedule that leaps past the customary process of spending years fleshing out standards through curriculum frameworks and developing instructional materials and teacher training before tests are developed. Both consortiums will develop annual tests for grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. Both are committed to create tests measuring whether students are on a successful path toward college and/or a career. Both will use multiple-choice questions for part of the tests. Both will have a common scale of measurement and cut points for proficiency that will allow cross-state comparisons – not readily possible now under independently developed state assessments.

But there are distinct geographical and philosophical differences between the two consortiums, and it’s significant that Brown, who has expressed skepticism over  California’s testing system, has allied the state with SMARTER Balanced.

Computer-adaptive testing

As I’ve noted before, both consortiums say they will be creating the next generation of assessments using computers and testing higher-level thinking. But SMARTER Balanced emphasizes performance measures – more in-depth exercises and demonstrations of higher skills. These are more complex, and potentially harder to grade and to make individual class and school comparisons for high-stakes accountability purposes.

SMARTER Balanced also will use computer-adaptive testing, which by choosing questions based on students’ previous answers, can better measure individual student knowledge and skills. Computer-adaptive testing has been used extensively in higher education but not in K-12 at this scale. It will require a much larger bank of questions than standard tests and well-equipped computer labs in every school.

Torlakson acknowledged that computer-adaptive testing may be a challenge in California, which he said is ranked 47th in the nation in its use of technology. But he said he plans a technology initiative that will call on businesses like Comcast to assist schools and will include technology components in the next state school bond issue.

PARCC, which will be managed by Washington, D.C.-based Achieve, is taking a more traditional approach, with a series of  periodic tests, called through-course assessments, leading to an end-of-year test. This has received considerable criticism lately from those who fear that through-course tests will regiment state curriculums. PARCC is said to be rethinking this approach. PARCC plans to base its college readiness measures on California’s Early Assessment Program, an 11th grade test used to gauge readiness for CSU. That’s one reason that the seven superintendents who led the state’s second-round Race to the Top application endorsed PARCC. “PARCC is designing a system that will emphasize college and career preparation, a necessary raising of the bar in today’s competitive global economy,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy in an unpublished opinion piece.

SMARTER Balanced is also more teacher-oriented, which is why the California Teachers Association endorsed it and Torkalson, a CTA ally, liked it as well. Darling-Hammond said yesterday that the consortium is committed to work with teachers in all phases of test development and that SMARTER Balanced will provide instructional supports for teachers and formative assessments – diagnostic exams that let teachers know how students are progressing.

“SMARTER Balanced will refocus us on learning and not just testing,” Darling-Hammond said.

But some see the linking of  formative and end-of-year or summative assessments as a weakness, not a strength, and as a factor in undermining the accountability value of testing.

Doug McRae, a retired test publisher and occasional contributor to TOP-Ed, called the selection of SMARTER Balanced “a major turning point for California” and a move “toward instructionally-based assessment and away from accountability-based assessment” – a “softer approach.”

McRae was among those who called for participating in both consortiums, as a way to learn from both and as a safeguard; he thinks both will have difficulty meeting their commitments in time. And McRae said he was disappointed that there was no analysis or vetting of the decision in public. Other states had advisory committees that were involved in the choice of consortiums, he said.

The State Board held a lengthy hearing in March, at which representatives of both consortiums made presentations and the Board heard public testimony. But the choice was not formally brought to the Board. Only the signature of Kirst, as president, was required. (Kirst, traveling to New England Thursday, could not be reached for comment.)

UPDATE: Kirst, reached today (the poor guy was waylaid at Dulles yesterday and never made it to his 50th college reunion), characterized SMARTER Balanced as “the best fit for California at this time.” The computer-adaptive technology “is a gamble but has a big upside” because California has a range of student body backgrounds with large numbers of students without strong English language skills. “This will tell us what students know as opposed to what they don’t know.”  SMARTER Balanced also showed in its presentation more understanding of issues for English language learners, he said.

“SMARTER Balanced seemed more adventuresome in trying to prove deep learning in designing the assessment,” Kirst said. He said he wasn’t sure that the consortium is more teacher-centric but agreed that teachers certainly perceive it that way. And he said that he, Brown and Torlakson did get a lot of feedback from the public, compared with last year, when the governor, state superintendent and state board president signed the MOU without any public participation.

PARCC has more of an East Coast – Florida, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — and large Midwest states membership, while California joins a distinctly Western and New England, minus Massachusetts, membership in SMARTER Balanced. It will be managed by San Francisco based WestEd and has familiar ed policy academicians serving on advisory committees. Beside Darling-Hammond, they include Jamal Abedi, UC Davis; Ed Haertel, Stanford University; Joan Herman, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing and James Popham, UCLA.