Quickly running out of time, a delegation from nine California school districts will go to Washington this week to make a last pitch to federal officials for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.
Officials from the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), the umbrella organization that the nine districts created, remain optimistic that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will grant them a unique districtwide waiver from significant penalties and requirements under NCLB. The immediate obstacle facing them, for the waiver to take effect in the upcoming school year, is time. Districts are up against deadlines for contracts with companies that provide services, such as tutoring, in schools that have failed to meet NCLB’s academic targets. Especially for Los Angeles Unified, a CORE district, these must be signed within a week or so, said Rick Miller, executive director of CORE.
If the three-year waiver is approved, such contracts won’t be required. Instead, the nine districts altogether will have flexibility to spend $100 million in Title I dollars funded for low-income children. The districts plan to use some of that money for teachers and administrators to work collaboratively. Sharing best practices among districts is a key element of the CORE application and offers “absolutely the best chance for districts to improve,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.
Along with Hanson and Miller, superintendents heading to Washington on Tuesday are John Deasy of Los Angeles Unified, Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified, Richard Carranza of San Francisco Unified and Gary Yee, interim superintendent of Oakland Unified. (Duncan won’t be in town today; he’s heading to Minneapolis.)
What’s encouraging, Miller said, is that “we are still intently engaged in conversations” with senior staff at the Department of Education.
Duncan has granted waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C. (see map), with applications for six more states still under review. Five other states have either not sought a waiver or, like California, have had applications rejected.
CORE includes some of the state’s largest unified districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento City, San Francisco and Santa Ana – along with Oakland, Sanger and Clovis. Together they represent about a million children, more students than in many other states. However, the federal government has never granted a NCLB waiver for districts, raising political and policy complications. The Council of Chief State School Officers, representing state superintendents, opposes the CORE waiver as an intrusion on their authority to enforce federal and state policies, and some advocates for low-income and minority students, including Washington-based The Education Trust, dislike the precedent of bypassing state oversight of academic accountability under NCLB. In March, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst wrote Duncan noting the State Board’s strong support for the waiver. However, the letter also raised concerns that needed to be dealt with, like the role of the state Department of Education.
Emphasis on district collaboration
CORE argues that it will demand broader accountability measures, beyond test scores, and make accessible to the public extensive data on academic results covering many more students than the federal government is requiring for a waiver. But it will do so through a distinctly different approach, based on peer review and a “moral imperative,” in which districts hold one another accountable. Those districts that don’t measure up will forgo the waiver. Besides losing Title I spending flexibility, they will have to continue to notify parents that their schools face sanctions for failing to meet increasingly unrealistic federal measures of proficiency on standardized tests.
In its application, CORE cited the high-performing Canadian province of Ontario, with its focus on teacher collaboration, instead of government-imposed sanctions, as its model. The architect of Ontario’s reforms, author Michael Fullan, advised CORE with its wavier application and might serve as an adviser if it’s approved.
To receive a waiver, states and the CORE districts would have to demonstrate how they would effectively introduce Common Core standards in English language arts and math and implement plans for improving their lowest performing 15 percent of schools. They must also commit to adopt new systems for evaluating teachers and administrators that would include results on standardized tests. In their application, the CORE districts said they would offer districts two options: One would require that test results comprise a minimum of 20 percent of an evaluation; the other, based on a system adopted in Massachusetts, would require using standardized tests only as a check against a review based on other factors, such as teacher observations and parent surveys.
The latter option should be an attractive alternative for teachers who oppose using standardized test scores. But, frustrated that they weren’t consulted in writing a CORE application stressing collaboration with teachers, the presidents of the CORE districts’ teachers unions wrote Miller last month saying they opposed the waiver application. Any effort at “whole system reform” must include “educators and their representatives, as well as other stakeholders, in meaningful decision-making roles throughout the process … not as an afterthought.”
Miller said that he understands why their application is giving the Department of Education pause. “There has been a positive impact in Ontario, but vesting power in peer review has not been done at this level in the United States,” he said. Federal officials “want to understand better and want more clarity.” They also want “a backstop” – a strong guarantee, in lieu of a formal role of the state, to ensure federal waiver and testing requirements will be enforced, he said.
Miller said that the waiver has gotten “enormous attention” from Duncan. Considering the “strong pushback” from forces lined up against a district waiver, “it is extraordinary that he has been so engaged. The Secretary of Education deserves a Profile in Courage award,” he said.