U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wouldn’t reveal even a hint regarding the status of California’s request for a waiver from the most unrealistic provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, in an interview on Wedneday.
Duncan only reiterated what state education officials have already acknowledged. “Our staff is still in conversation with the state, so we’re still working on it,” the Secretary told EdSource Today in a phone call yesterday during the first leg of his “Education Drives America” Back-to-School bus tour as it rolled through the Bay Area.
In June, the California State Board of Education and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson submitted a general waiver request to the Department of Education, bypassing the Secretary’s waiver package in part because it required states to implement a teacher evaluation system, even though that is not part of the federal education law.
Since it announced the waiver process one year ago this month, the Department has approved proposals from 33 states and the District of Columbia. California is among eleven states, plus Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, that have waivers pending.
Duncan gave no indication of when the Department will announce its decisions on the remaining requests except to say that he and his staff are “working absolutely as fast as we can.”
He was also noncommittal when pressed about the possibility of a district waiver process, which is being pushed by the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a coalition of eight of the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach. Duncan said any discussion of that was premature.
“You’re sort of ahead of me on that,” said the Secretary. “Our focus now is on working with the states, and once that process is done, we’ll take a hard look at where we’re at and figure out what the next steps are.”
CORE districts have been frustrated by the state’s unwillingness to submit a proper application. Without a waiver, districts could be subject to harsh penalties if they fail at what most educators agree is an impossible goal of having 100 percent of their students score at the proficient level or better on the California Standards Tests by 2014.
Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, wouldn’t venture a guess on whether California will get a waiver. “I am not willing to speculate on (the Department’s) decision-making process. We continue to have productive conversations with Secretary Duncan’s staff and are appreciative of their ongoing offers of technical assistance.”
Tension with teachers
The secretary was eager to weigh in on the relationship between the Obama Administration and the nation’s teachers unions, particularly in light of the Chicago teachers’ strike, calling the tensions overblown by the media.
“There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of districts all over the country that have shown great union-management collaboration, and frankly haven’t had a lot of drama,” said Duncan, pointing out that after two years of on-and-off negotiations, Boston mayor Thomas Menino and the teachers union yesterday reached a tentative agreement on new contract. “The media only covers it when there’s screaming,” Duncan said.
He also dismissed concerns by some teachers that they’re being vilified for opposing efforts to evaluate them based on student test scores. “To be clear, we want to look at how much students are improving each year, but we’ve said from day one, we have to look at multiple measures. Anyone who thinks that an entire evaluation should be based on test scores, that’s crazy.”
Duncan said the Department of Education is doing whatever it can to attract and retain talented teachers, including launching the RESPECT Project. President Obama is requesting $5 billion from Congress to create a competitive grant program to encourage collaboration among states, districts, unions, and colleges of education to reform and elevate the teaching profession. “I think there’s tremendous common ground there,” said the Secretary.
John Fensterwald contributed to this report.