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Waivers (of Waivers) Watch: If It Looks Like a Pause, and It Sounds Like a Pause…

Published:  June 18, 2013
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Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the question of whether states can delay their timeline for using Common Core assessments in accountability systems for schools and teachers. The tests are set to be fully deployed during the 2014-15 school year, and according to the original policy for offering No Child Left Behind waivers, the results from the assessments would also be used for school accountability and educator evaluations that year (except in states that applied for waivers after August 2012 – see this nifty chart for a full breakdown). Under the new policy, however, states would be able to apply to hold off using the evaluation results for personnel decisions for an extra year – meaning that, in some states, the results from the 2014-15 year would be used to provide feedback and inform professional development only.

The question of whether to “pause” or place a “moratorium” on Common Core implementation has divided education stakeholders. Fifteen organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, support a moratorium on high-stakes accountability (including student promotion and graduation policies, personnel decisions, and school improvement designations) associated with the Common Core. Instead, these groups - the Learning First Alliance - would like to focus all immediate efforts on improving the supports teachers have to adopt the Common Core, including professional development, curriculum, technology infrastructure, and other resources. On the other hand, Chiefs for Change – a group of eleven reform-minded chief state school officers – urged Secretary Duncan to maintain the Common Core implementation timeline, even for high-stakes decisions, noting that states made these commitments years ago and should not backtrack on accountability.

Others took a slightly more measured approach, but still supported a pause on some components of implementation. The Council of Chief State School Officers asked for state flexibility in three areas: school ratings, teacher evaluations, and which assessments to use for accountability during 2013-14. Some states could maintain the rigorous timelines laid out in their waiver plans, while others could choose to slow down on one or all of these components.

And it appears that Secretary Duncan chose to take the CCSSO route, more or less. States could apply – if they want – to delay the most serious consequences for teachers, like decisions to award tenure or dismiss staff, for one year. Additionally, states would have new flexibility for implementing assessments and school accountability systems. They could apply to use either existing state assessments or Common Core field test results for accountability in the 2013-14 school year (to avoid the so-called “double testing” problem).

While Secretary Duncan insisted the new policy is not a “pause” or a “moratorium” on Common Core, it’s hard to distinguish between an “extension” – the language used by the Department – and a “pause.” No matter what you call it, the requirement for waiver states to use evaluations for personnel decisions can be shelved for a year. And there is no question that states have had a lot of time to fully transition to the Common Core – in most cases, over four years, longer than they had to implement all of the components of No Child Left Behind. In the words of Chad Aldeman, “If this isn’t enough time, what would be?” Will opposition to using teacher evaluations for personnel decisions really die down by the time 2016 rolls around? Further, the new policy could create additional confusion in an already confusing waiver process. It says something that the Department has to release a four-page, state-by-state chart just to explain the timeline for implementing the waiver components (still waiting for a state-by-state chart explaining what they’re actually doing – a far more complicated question).

Still, the Secretary’s decision is a fair compromise between the competing advocacy groups’ positions. And I give credit to the Department for one thing: holding firm on the most critical component of accountability, continuous improvement. More so than the punitive consequences, like school closures and teacher dismissals, accountability really serves to provide meaningful and transparent feedback to schools and educators and give them a roadmap to improve. During the transition to college- and career-ready standards, it is imperative for both schools and teachers to be evaluated on their progress and to use information from evaluations to improve the implementation process. If accountability and other incentives for educators are not aligned to the standards, what kind of signal does that send about the value of implementing them well?

So yes, there will be a pause. And members of Congress can now wave binders full of waivers, and then waivers of waivers, during hearings. But at least the Department is not pressing pause on what’s most important: its expectations for higher standards, better assessments, and continuous improvement.

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