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Waiver Watch: States, Pass Teacher Evaluation Legislation At Your Own Risk

Published:  August 16, 2013

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education placed three states’ No Child Left Behind waivers on “high risk” status, the first serious action to enforce flexibility requirements by the Department. All three – Kansas, Oregon, and Washington – had received waivers on the condition that they provide evidence, by the end of the 2012-13 school year, of adopting teacher evaluation guidelines in line with the flexibility policy. Specifically, each state struggled to demonstrate that they were using student growth as a significant factor in their evaluation systems. Ten states were initially granted these conditional waivers, and in addition to the three named today, Arizona and Georgia still have outstanding conditions to meet. For more, check out these excellent recaps from PoliticsK-12, Politico, and Huffington Post.

Kansas, Oregon, and Washington have until the end of the upcoming school year to get back on track, including a tailored to-do list for each and monthly check-ins with the Department. And if early reports are any indication, state officials aren’t too happy about it. That’s because if they don’t shape up, they could – theoretically – lose flexibility altogether. In that case, they would still have to comply with all of NCLB’s provisions, including the 100% proficiency targets required in 2014 (although it’s unclear whether schools would face sanctions immediately, since it takes two consecutive years of failure for schools to be placed in improvement).

It’s no surprise states are running into implementation issues over teacher evaluations. Others, including waiver rejects California and Iowa, have stumbled with the requirement. And measuring student growth – particularly in untested grades and subjects – is challenging and complicated, as my colleague Laura Bornfreund wrote in her recent report An Oceans of Unknowns. Further, there is often legitimate resistance to overcome from teachers who question whether the systems are fair and reliable measures of their job performance. Since these evaluations will be used to inform personnel decisions, the results are high-stakes and intensely personal for many educators.

These are serious complications, but the status quo isn’t acceptable either. The Department should hold states to a high standard when it comes to evaluation reform. For far too long teacher evaluation systems were meaningless. Nearly every teacher was satisfactory, whether their students were learning or not. But despite the administration’s strong support for reform, at least one lesson learned from states’ evaluation struggles to date could be a counterintuitive one:

States, pass teacher evaluation legislation at your own risk. 

Washington is on high-risk status because its state law didn’t jive with all of the Department’s guidelines and require evaluations to include state assessment data when they are available. Iowa’s waiver was more or less rejected because state legislators passed a law prohibiting the education agency from changing evaluation systems without their approval. And Illinois is in “waiver purgatory,” still waiting after eighteen months for approval… all because a previously enacted state law set a different timeline for implementing teacher evaluations than the Department specified. Because the state took a staggered approach over several years, many Illinois districts will be fully implementing evaluations in 2014-15 (the deadline set in the waiver policy), but not all. Some will implement the following two years, and for this reason, Illinois continues to wait.

Yet Idaho and South Dakota, which had teacher evaluation laws that were pivotal to their securing a waiver, seem to be on track with the Department even after those laws were repealed in ballot initiatives last November. These states are now relying on regulatory action from the state board and education agency to enact their evaluation systems instead, and that’s okay.

You’d think the Department would welcome legislation requiring rigorous evaluation systems, since it’s the strongest indication that states intend to follow through on their implementation plans. But that’s also part of the problem for states trying to toe the line with the Department: a state statute is clear evidence of their ability to implement evaluation systems in step with all of the federal requirements. It's much easier to explain your way into what the Department is looking for if you don't have legislation at all.


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