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.
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.