In order to qualify for a waiver from some of the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, California would have to introduce new teacher and principal evaluation systems linked to student test scores in thousands of California schools that receive federal Title 1 funds by the 2014-15 school year.
As a result of deep unhappiness with many aspects of the law, the Obama administration is inviting states to apply for waivers from the law. But federal officials are making it clear that if California were to apply for a waiver, it would have to fully implement any plan it submits by the 2014-15 school year.
That was the message that Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin in the U.S. Department of Education brought from Washington to the State Board of Education meeting in Sacramento last week.
Board president Michael Kirst had invited Yudin to appear before the state board to explain what exactly the federal government’s expectations were in regards to applying for a waiver.
Remarkably, Yudin was unable to tell the state board what the consequences for California would be if it failed to implement everything contained in its plan were it to apply for the waiver.
The waiver the Obama administration is offering would offer all kinds of incentives to states and schools. It would, for example, suspend the requirements whereby states have to set “annual measurable objectives” that schools and districts must meet. But the U.S. Department of Education would also require states to implement a slew of provisions to get these benefits, including the teacher and principle evaluation requirements.
At its previous meeting in November, the State Board of Education reviewed a report by the California Department of Education, which estimated that complying with the waiver requirements could cost the state nearly $3 billion.
The costs of the waiver, along with the requirements demanded by the Obama administration to receive it, has prompted the California Teachers Association (CTA) to advocate against California applying for the waiver, despite pressures to do so from numerous school superintendents who are finding that growing numbers of their schools are being labeled as failing under the law. “They should relieve states of the onerous requirements of NCLB, and not replace it with more onerous requirements,” CTA vice president Eric Heins told EdSource.
Yudin said that the intent of granting waivers from NCLB—which marked its 10th anniversary last Sunday—is to give states maximum flexibility in coming up with their own accountability systems over the next year or two until Congress is able to break the gridlock it is in and get around to reauthorizing the law.
Currently, ever larger numbers of schools are not meeting those objectives, and are being labeled as in need of “program improvement,” or effectively, “failing” under the law. In this school year, some 63 percent, or nearly 4,000 out of just over 6,000 schools receiving federal Title 1 funds for poor children, are labeled as being in “program improvement.”
“We are taking the pressure off, and giving you the space you need,” Yudin said, emphasizing that “the best ideas do not come from Washington, they come from the ground…We want to help states meet our principles while they do what they have to do.”
But if Yudin was attempting to assuage people’s fears about what it will take to apply for waiver, on several issues he may have done just the opposite. Even as he was saying states would have great flexibility, he laid out requirements that would seem extraordinarily difficult for California to attain—especially in the most controversial requirement of linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.
To do so would require new collective bargaining agreements with teachers in most districts. But the California Teachers Association is opposed to including test scores as part of teacher evaluations, if those evaluations are used used for promotions, and hiring and firing, as they currently are. That opposition makes the likelihood of so many schools and districts in the state being able to introduce the kind of evaluation system being promoted by the Obama administration a virtual impossibility.
“We would be exchanging one set of bad mandates for another set of bad mandates,” CTA vice president Eric Heins told EdSource. He said that student test scores could be used to help “improve a teacher’s practice” but that it would be “inappropriate to use them to make high stakes decisions about hiring and firing and promotions.” Several leading scholars and statisticians have made a similar argument, pointing to the flaws in the “value added” methodology that is typically used to tie student test scores to the performance of individual teachers.
Instead, Heins said, the focus should be on getting Congress to reauthorize the current law. Although that is already five years overdue, there is now some hope that reauthorization could occur, but only after the 2012 presidential elections—with any luck in 2013 or 2014. Whatever law Congress ends up authorizing could render some or all of the changes California would make in order to qualify for the Obama administration’s waiver obsolete even before it gets off the ground. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Heins said.
To calm anxieties, Yudin notes that the administration’s teacher evaluation requirement for obtaining a waiver only specifies that student test scores comprise “a significant factor” of the evaluation, not how significant a factor it should be. That would be left up to the states to decide. For example, in the waiver applications received so far, one state says student test scores should comprise half of the evaluation score, he said, while others like Massachusetts don’t even assign a weight to it.
State Board of Education vice-president Trish Williams asked Yudin what would happen if “in a worst case scenario” California was granted a waiver, and then for any number of reasons could not carry out all its conditions. “If two years from now we don’t get to one thousand districts, are you going to undo the waivers?” she asked. “Do we get penalized? Do we just stop? What?”
Yudin was unable to answer the question as to what would occur. The federal government had not set a policy to deal with that eventuality. “Regarding what steps we will take a few years down the road, I can’t answer that,” he said.
He said the waiver—and its accompanying requirements—are not intended to be permanent, or to be an end run around Congress. “This is not meant to be a reauthorizing (of NCLB), it is meant just to give some flexibility to states,” he said.
The experience of states who were awarded Race to the Top funds suggests that California would have good reason to be wary about its ability to fully implement a plan requiring a revamping of the state’s teacher evaluation system, and implementing a new one covering school principals—and what the federal government might do were the state unable to do so.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a report documenting that three out of the 11 states that were awarded Race to the Top funds, including New York, are having significant difficulties carrying out the requirements of the grant. Implementing the teacher evaluation requirement has proven especially problematic.
“Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools,” Duncan said.
Board president Kirst raised another concern: the requirement that principal evaluation systems be tied to students’ test scores. “California has no statewide policy for principal evaluation,” he said. “We would have to start from scratch.”
But Assistant Secretary Yudin did not back down: states are required to implement all aspects of their plans. As he put it, there will be “no free pass.”
“California is a big state,” the California Teachers Association’s Heins countered. “We should be able to decide how best to evaluate our teachers.”
For arguments on both sides of the teacher evaluation debate, see today’s New York Times colloquium.