ESEA Waivers

What to Think About the DC IMPACT Study

October 17, 2013
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Few teacher evaluation reforms have been as contentious as the IMPACT system in D.C. Public Schools. But a new study published by Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff provides the first empirical evidence that the controversial policy could be encouraging effective teachers to stay in the classroom – and improve their practice.

Dee and Wyckoff examined teachers that scored on the cusp of various IMPACT performance levels– namely, teachers just above and just below the cutoff for effective and highly effective (HE) ratings. The idea is that teachers near the cut points share similar characteristics, regardless of their final rating. By examining these teachers’ outcomes in subsequent years, researchers can isolate the effect of IMPACT’s incentives on teacher behavior. Do teachers that barely receive a HE rating fare differently than those that just missed the distinction? And do minimally effective (ME) teachers close to the effective cut point respond differently than teachers who barely cleared the effective hurdle?

Turns out, they do. The incentive structure within IMPACT had significant effects on retention and performance, particularly after the second year of implementation (2010-11) when IMPACT gained credibility. At that time, teachers with two ME ratings became eligible for termination and those with two HE ratings earned permanent salary increases, not just bonuses. Teachers that received their first ME rating after the 2010-11 year were significantly more likely to leave DCPS (over 10 percentage points) than teachers that scored just above the cut point. Further, the threat of dismissal improved the performance of ME teachers that chose to stay for the 2011-12 year – their scores improved by 12.6 IMPACT points compared to teachers that just received an effective rating, an increase of five percentile points. Similar effects were seen for teachers that could become eligible for increases in their base pay if they remained HE – their 2011-12 IMPACT scores improved by nearly 11 points compared to teachers that missed the HE cutoff, an increase of seven percentile points.

So what do these results tell us about IMPACT and teacher evaluation reform overall? Is this a moment for cautious – or all-out – optimism?

1. Evaluation systems like IMPACT don’t necessarily improve the performance of teachers across the effectiveness spectrum.  That’s because Dee and Wyckoff only examined a narrow band of DCPS teachers: those scoring right at the cut points between ratings. These teachers are the most likely to be influenced by the incentives built into IMPACT – say, when the ratings affect job security. Instead, the research demonstrates the effect of certain incentives, on a certain group of teachers. Those incentives worked –and worked well – but we still don’t know how the performance of most teachers changed in response to the new evaluation system.

2. That said, the research is rigorous, and the results are encouraging. There is evidence that the district’s teacher workforce improved overall. Some ME teachers voluntarily chose to leave DCPS, and the newly hired teachers that replaced them in the 2011-12 year had higher IMPACT scores, on average. And there is no evidence that highly effective teachers were pushed out of the system by IMPACT. Further, many ME and HE teachers tended to improve on IMPACT when they remained with DCPS.

However, more research is needed to determine what interventions were most effective in helping these teachers improve – and to determine whether other teachers (not just those near the cut points) saw similar outcomes. Evaluation systems must define what effective teaching is, and also provide the knowledge and support for teachers to meet these expectations. We know far more about identifying effective teachers than we know about what to do next.

Of course, that brings up another important caveat: improvements in performance here are measured based on changes in IMPACT scores. The authors don’t link these results to student learning explicitly – another area for future research.

3. Finally, while the results are positive and provide some of the best evidence to date on the success of IMPACT, the research may not be widely applicable to other districts and states. IMPACT and DCPS remain outliers in many respects:

  • IMPACT uses value-added data to measure an individual teachers’ contribution to student learning, which many evaluation systems have eschewed.
  • IMPACT includes not one, not two, but five observations of classroom practice over the course of the year. Further, two of these observations are conducted by master educators, rather than school principals. Hiring and training objective observers takes time, capacity, and resources that many states and districts do not have – or are unwilling to dedicate – for evaluation.
  • IMPACT’s improvement and incentive structures are also well-developed and supported. DCPS has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its coaching and professional development and link it to IMPACT. Further, the bonuses and salary increases for highly effective teachers are substantial, thanks in part to foundation funding. While this external support may raise questions of sustainability, these incentives have been institutionalized in the district’s contract with the Washington Teachers Union.
  • In a way, IMPACT operates at both a state- and district-level. Some of the lessons learned from IMPACT may not be applicable in states, which face additional layers of governance and greater heterogeneity. On the flip side, IMPACT may not be a model for other districts, where administrators could have less autonomy to develop, implement, and revise evaluation systems.

In other words, the results from D.C. are encouraging, but there is still much to learn. More worrisome, as teacher evaluation reform takes hold across the country as part of Race to the Top and states’ ESEA waiver plans, these positive results may prove to be a one-off. IMPACT is as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get – especially compared to the rudimentary, half-baked, and vague evaluation systems described in many states’ waiver requests. While it is important for states to follow through with their promises to implement new evaluation systems, the quality of this implementation should be of equal – or even greater – concern to policymakers, educators, and advocates moving forward. 

Trading Transparency and Accountability Today for Better Testing Tomorrow

September 23, 2013
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2013-14: the school year all American students, in all public schools, were expected to be proficient in reading and math. It’s finally here. But don’t kid yourself – nobody expects American schools to meet that goal this spring. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA waivers (and waivers of waivers), most won’t have to.

Instead, 41 states, Washington, D.C. and eight California school districts have different goals for student performance. Goals that cut achievement gaps, or delay the universal proficiency deadline, or lead to college and career readiness, or something else. In some states, failing to meet these goals – like failing to make AYP – triggers interventions as a priority or focus school. But in others, there isn’t any meaningful accountability attached to the new targets. Moreover, many states won’t name any new priority or focus schools this year.

While states don’t have a clean record when it comes to gaming accountability systems, that isn’t necessarily what’s happening here. Holding priority and focus lists constant from 2013 to 2014 is a pragmatic decision on states’ parts, because school performance goals aren’t the only thing changing. Across the country, in waiver and non-waiver states alike, students will also be field testing the new Common Core-aligned tests developed by SmarterBalanced and PARCC. And the Department is letting all states apply for additional flexibility so that some students, in some schools, would take the field test and wouldn’t take state standardized tests in at least one subject. In other words, states won’t have to “double test.”

This creates a problem for the continuity of school accountability systems. How can you judge school performance fairly and accurately when the data aren’t comparable between schools? That’s like determining the faster runner when one competitor has hurdles in their lane and the other doesn’t. Further, the field tests aren’t designed to be used for making school accountability determinations, or frankly, measuring student performance. As Tom Kane notes in his incredibly smart take on the issue, the field test is meant to test the validity of individual test items, not produce a valid score for an individual student. Making a trade-off between high-stakes consequences for school accountability and a valid field test seems like a relatively easy choice. Hold accountability determinations steady and continue all current school improvement efforts, but make sure the field test is conducted to the highest possible standard so that the tests are ready for primetime in 2015.

But it isn’t quite that simple. After all, accountability is about more than being labeled a “failing” school or a priority one. Accountability relies first and foremost on transparent, accurate reporting of student achievement data. And this is where the field test creates a much more harmful trade-off. The U.S. Department of Education will still require all students to be assessed in both reading and math, but states will not be required to publicly announce the results for students taking a field test. For the first time in the NCLB era, there will not be achievement data available for a significant number of students and public schools.

This is a big deal. These data (should) inform nearly every decision made in education – for families, for educators, and for policymakers. Should we send our child to the neighborhood school, or try to enroll her in a charter school nearby? How effective was our new 7th grade math curriculum? Did our new professional development program improve teaching quality? Are the interventions in our focus schools working? All of these questions will be much more difficult to answer without student assessment data. Further, as Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman and Andy Smarick write, this compromises efforts to measure student achievement and growth as required in Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, and a host of other Obama education reforms. Yes, states could continue to administer their current tests during the field test, as they have during previous assessment revisions. But many will not. While the Department was clearly trying to appease (or even subtly encourage) states to participate in the field test, would states have really balked at field testing if every student was also given the state assessment?

Giving up a year of meaningful school accountability is a high price for getting better, more rigorous assessments that reflect what truly matters: whether students are ready for college and career. But the Department didn’t just give up meaningful accountability. They’re also giving up public reporting of test results at the same time. Does that make the price too high?

While it’s too late to reverse the Department’s decision, states participating in the field test should take a prudent and limited approach to it. Let field tests be field tests. They weren’t designed to be used as measures of individual student achievement or school performance. And the more students and schools participating in field testing, the larger the effect on transparency and accountability will be. Unfortunately, a few states – most notably California – are already gearing up to scrap their state assessments entirely this year and only administer the field test.

2014 was never going to be the year we saw universal proficiency. Unfortunately, it could shape up to be the year we see universal missing data. Let’s hope other states don’t follow California’s lead.

Waiver Watch: Let the Renewal Games Begin

August 30, 2013

As Ed Money Watch previously reported, the U.S. Department of Education has placed three states – Kansas, Oregon, and Washington – on “high risk” status for their ESEA waiver plans related to new teacher evaluation systems.  If they don’t get up to speed by the end of 2013-14, these states could face a series of increasing sanctions, from losing state administrative or programmatic Title I funding, to losing ESEA flexibility entirely. With the latter, the state would again be subject to all of the requirements and provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Now, the Department has released initial guidelines for all states seeking to renew their waivers this winter. Waivers granted from the first two application windows (November 2011 and February 2012) expire at the end of the current school year. Without the two-year extension, the consequences for these 35 states are the same as for those on high risk: NCLB, in full effect, in 2014-15I won’t go into the details of the renewal process (yet), but for more analysis take a look at these thorough recaps from Education Week’s Michele McNeil and Politico’s Caitlin Emma.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the challenge the U.S. Department of Education faces in ensuring state compliance with flexibility. The Department has a few tools at its disposal to cajole states into cooperation, but these kinds of punishments are rare, if not unprecedented. Few states have lost Title I funding, administrative or programmatic, under NCLB. And several states have been placed on high risk for their Race to the Top plans, but the Department has yet to follow through on the warning and revoke a portion of states’ funding.

Further, is returning to NCLB even a viable option? After two years of waivers, it would be a nightmare to revert back to NCLB-style accountability. For instance, would a state’s AMOs be applied retroactively to determine which schools were in need of improvement and which sanctions to apply (e.g. corrective action, restructuring)? Or, would every school in the state start with a clean slate and need to miss AYP for two years before sanctions kick in?

So on the one hand, the Department’s recent actions demonstrate that they will, at least symbolically, hold states accountable for the promises they made in their waivers. On the other, as DFER’s Dom Giandomenico notes in this must-read post, it shows just how anemic the Department’s monitoring and enforcement plans are. There will be two official monitoring cycles completed by year’s end, but they don’t cover every component of states’ flexibility plans. And while the Department is gathering data to analyze how states selected schools for improvement under flexibility (and will ask states to respond in their renewals), the data may not be made public, at least initially. The renewals will not face a peer review either.

In short, it’s far from clear how the Department will evaluate the quality of state waiver implementation in the renewal process, or if they’ll have all the information they need to make an informed judgment. But would better information, or a more thorough review procedure, even make a difference?

Let’s play a little game. 

Assume that the Department wants states to comply with the flexibility policy and to gain this compliance through partnerships, not punishments. The latter is particularly important to the Department, since punishing waiver states for non-compliance (by revoking flexibility or rescinding Title I funds) could further hinder effective implementation of the reforms the Department would like to see. In other words, any scenario where the Department must force states to re-comply with NCLB is worse than any scenario where waiver implementation is just so-so.

Now, let’s assume that states with flexibility prefer to have complete control over standards, assessment, and accountability within their states. But their preference for waivers is even stronger. They don't want to revert back to NCLB and comply with its 100% proficiency target for all students and 20% Title I set-aside for school choice and tutoring. For states, any situation where they get to keep their waivers is better than one where they lose flexibility. But the best situation is one where they have as much discretion as possible within the waiver policy. 

Here’s how the game plays out:

Regardless of the monitoring process or the rigor of the renewal guidelines, the only feasible outcome of the game is for states to do what they want, more or less, and for the federal government to work with them and hope states make good choices. In any other scenario, someone could be better off.

What did we learn?

1. U.S. Department of Education: Don't be timid when it comes to asking states to justify the policies in their waiver requests. States will tolerate the paperwork, data analysis, and conference calls if it means keeping flexibility. Yes, states may eventually struggle to implement, or even undermine, the Department's preferred policies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to get states to do the right thing.

2. States: Behave responsibly. If states go too far and blatantly ignore the federal guidance, the Department may lose their preference for waivers at all costs – and there could be serious consequences down the line. It may not affect the waiver renewal process, but if states misuse the flexibility and unravel the progress made under NCLB, policymakers will take notice… and the next iteration of waivers (or a reauthorized ESEA) may not be as friendly toward local control.

3. Education researchers and advocates: Pay close attention to the game. States have a lot of discretion within the waiver policy, and there will be significant variation between them in terms of quality and outcomes – especially without strong federal enforcement. Recent reports – like this one from the Campaign for High School Equity – are a good start, but much more analysis is needed to ensure the lessons to be learned from ESEA flexibility are not lost.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of ESEA flexibility and the upcoming waiver renewals.

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

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.

At US News' Debate Club: Fix, Don't Eliminate, the Federal Role in Education

July 25, 2013
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Yesterday, US News & World Report asked five experts in its Debate Club whether the Senate should pass the House’s No Child Left Behind rewrite – the Student Success Act. With the last week's House action, the Student Success Act is the first piece of legislation to make it to a floor vote in the six years since NCLB has been due for reauthorization. Sounds like progress, right?

Well I don’t agree. Here’s what I had to say about the Student Success Act: “Unfortunately, the Student Success Act isn't going to fix either policy [NCLB or NCLB waivers]. Because the Student Success Act doesn't want to fix the federal role in education – it wants to eliminate it.”

What does that mean? While the bill would reduce the scope of the federal role in education by freezing funding at sequester levels and eliminating programs and U.S. Department of Education staff, funding isn’t my biggest issue with the Student Success Act. The larger problem is that the bill guts federal accountability for schools and educators at the same time. There are no requirements for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, no requirements for states to implement rigorous school accountability systems or teacher evaluations, and no requirements for states to meaningfully support school improvement. (You can see a detailed comparison of all the various NCLB reauthorization proposals here.)  

Yes, NCLB was too prescriptive for states in certain areas. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for no federal role whatsoever. As I explain:

"Skeptics say that the federal government can make states do things, but can't make them do things well. But that's the point: without a strong federal role, states may not do anything at all. Instead of giving states slack in the right places (e.g. how to improve schools, how to produce effective teachers), the Student Success Act gives up entirely – no standards, no accountability, no improvement.”

You can read (and vote for) my full response in the Debate Club here, along with commentary from Rep. George Miller (D-CA); president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten; the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

If Congress Agrees the Era of Big Government is Over, Why Can’t We Get an ESEA Deal?

July 2, 2013

UPDATED 7/22: The side-by-side comparison of each proposal now reflects the final version of the Student Success Act, as amended during floor debate on July 18 and 19. For full coverage of the House debate and vote, read the Storify here.

Considering Congress hasn’t figured out how to compromise on student loan interest rates (despite the fact that President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senators proposed shockingly similar plans), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains at a standstill. Sure, the Senate and House of Representatives marked up proposed legislation and moved it out of their respective education committees. But everyone – including Congress itself – knows these bills aren’t going anywhere. How else can you explain a Senate markup so sparsely attended that Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) threatened his fellow members’ subcommittee leadership? Or a House markup so speedy that you missed it if you took a long lunch?

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no pressure to get a rewrite of ESEA (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) done, and these days Congress needs a cliff or a crisis (or a rapidly expanding minority population to win over) in order to accomplish anything. The deadline built into NCLB – that 100 percent of students in every Title I school be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanctions – won’t hit until next summer. But the U.S. Department of Education has already leveled this “proficiency cliff” by giving ESEA waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C. (that number could balloon to 45 states and a handful of districts in California if all remaining requests are approved).

While states – via the National Governor’s Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups – claim they want a reauthorization, surely they’d prefer to stick with waivers if a new ESEA meant additional federal requirements or any significant changes to their Department-approved plans. This makes reauthorization more difficult than ever. Waivers are complicated, involve dozens of policy choices for states, and vary tremendously. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham put it best: “It’s hard to overstate how completely incoherent federal policy on K-12 schools now is. States are all over the place on timelines, approaches, and so forth with little rhyme or reason.” Accordingly, any ESEA reauthorization proposal that seeks to win over state education officials or build off of existing waiver policies has to envision such a weak federal role that states can pretty much do whatever they want.

And that’s exactly what we got… and not just from the usual suspects (i.e. congressional Republicans). Even the Democrats’ proposals envision an incredibly limited federal role in education. You can see for yourself by downloading our complete cheat sheet here. The central ESEA reauthorization question today isn’t “what is the appropriate federal role?” but rather “how weak a federal role can we live with?”

Take Senator Harkin’s proposal. Yes, states must adopt college- and career ready standards, test students annually in reading and math, establish an accountability system with performance targets, identify at least 15 percent of schools for improvement, and implement performance-based evaluation system for teachers and principals. But all of the details (with the exception of federal reporting, where the requirements are quite specific) are left up to states. Waivers can remain in effect, and for nearly every provision there’s an option to design and get approval for states’ preferred policy choices.

The Ranking Member on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), would give states slightly less leeway. For example, Miller’s proposal defines what adequate student growth means, gives states fewer choices in setting performance targets, and requires states to get approval for their academic standards from institutions of higher education unless they are common to several states. Still, Miller wouldn’t require states to intervene in a certain number or percentage of schools (just particular categories of schools), and it gives states flexibility to design their own accountability systems and teacher evaluations.

What’s incredible is that the Republican proposals cede even more authority to states – significantly curbing the Secretary of Education’s authority, eliminating (or consolidating, depending on your point of view) funding and programs like those for English language learners, and dismantling nearly every federal guideline for standards and accountability. Their plans also eschew many of the lessons learned from NCLB, including bipartisan, commonsense ideas like uniform graduation rates and using a balance of proficiency and growth for accountability. Is it intrusive to ask states to set some kind of school performance goals? Is it so burdensome for states to also take student growth into account? And is it really that unreasonable to expect states to report school data in a comparable way?

None of the ESEA reauthorization proposals are perfect. But if you actually read them – and I have – it seems like there should be more room to compromise. Everyone envisions a limited federal role! (To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is the best policy choice, only that it should make the politics easier.)

If Congress seriously wanted to make a deal, perhaps Republicans could get on board with a few more state requirements – performance targets or interventions in some number of schools, a measure of student growth, graduation rate accountability, and performance-based teacher evaluations that guide professional development – as long as states still had flexibility to make their own choices. Democrats could appease Republicans by streamlining reporting requirements, eliminating some of the required actions for schools in improvement, allowing teacher evaluations to be used only for professional development, or working on language to clarify the Secretary’s authority to grant waivers or encourage Common Core participation.

Yes, there would still be big differences to iron out (maintenance of effort, funding comparability, etc.), but the two parties aren’t nearly as far apart on policy as the political rhetoric might suggest. Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win. Despite two markups, four proposals, and thousands of pages of legislation, nobody in Washington benefits from making a deal. So get ready for those waiver renewals because ESEA isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

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

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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