Eight California districts receive historic NCLB waiver

August 6, 2013

Eight California school districts individually* (see note below)  will receive the first district waivers from penalties under the No Child Left Behind law, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Tuesday.

Duncan praised the districts’ “creative, thoughtful, innovative proposal.” He said that 1 million students will benefit from the districts’ “rigorous expectations” and that other states will learn from the collaborative strategies that the districts are pledging to carry out. “Frankly, working directly with districts wasn’t an easy decision,” Duncan said. “We’re not taking this up because it was simple, but because it was the right thing to do.”

The one-year waiver, issued after weeks of intense negotiations between federal officials and superintendents in the CORE districts, will free the districts from key sanctions of NCLB and provide them with flexibility to use about $110 million in Title I money for school improvement, including training teachers in Common Core standards. The districts will stop NCLB’s accountability clock, in which additional schools would be labeled as failing, and instead be able to create broader measures of student achievement beyond standardized test scores.

The CORE districts are spread out geographically and represent 1.1 million California students. More than half of those students are from two southern California districts, Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified. Clovis Unified, which is included in the charts, withdrew its application late in the process.


The eight unified districts applying through their umbrella organization, the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, serve more than one in six students in the state; the districts are Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Ana, Sanger, Sacramento City and Fresno. Clovis Unified, an original applicant that concluded the waiver was similar to its accountability system, has dropped out.

The waiver comes in the nick of time to take effect this school year. Duncan has issued waivers to 39 states so far and is reviewing applications for five more. An additional six states either have not applied or, like California, had their applications denied.

The waiver, the first that was not issued to a state department of education, has been strongly opposed by state chiefs of education, teachers unions and some advocacy groups that see a district waiver as a potential end run around federal accountability rules. Duncan said in a press conference that the law authorizes him to grant waivers to districts, as previous education secretaries have done for specific provisions. But Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, characterized the CORE waiver Tuesday as “an unprecedented shift in the federal role in education — clearly usurping state leadership.” California Department of Education officials expressed skepticism as well. In a statement Tuesday, California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel reiterated criticism of the waiver, though primarily for the districts’ failure to consult with local teachers unions in crafting the application, which he termed “counterproductive and divisive.”

The CORE superintendents argued to Duncan that they were seeking a stronger, “holistic” alternative to a narrowly focused and unworkable federal system. Districts, the application said, “have been too often chasing success in a system that does not define success in a comprehensive or rigorous manner.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan granted the CORE districts’ waiver Tuesday.

Duncan agreed and singled out CORE’s commitment to significantly expand the accountability system to include more minority and special education students than currently required under federal law. CORE’s proposal calls for significantly lowering the number of students represented in a subgroup as part of a school’s accountability measure. The waiver requires any subgroup of 20 or more children in a school to be included, instead of a minimum of 100 students, a threshold that Duncan said left 153,000 children “invisible” in the CORE districts under NCLB. Dozens of elementary schools, for example, in which students with disabilities, Hispanic children or African American children account for between 20 and 99 students will now track the progress of those student groups.

“These students face the same issues of poverty and should be treated with the same notions of accountability,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy.

Liz Guillen, the legislative director of Public Advocates, a civil rights law firm, said that what the CORE superintendents didn’t say was that this year, under the Local Control Funding Formula, the Legislature lowered the statewide subgroup number to 30 students anyway.

The students will now be measured not only on standardized test results but by broader dimensions of student engagement and performance in a new School Quality Improvement System.

The state also is transitioning to a broader accountability system, although the pieces aren’t in place. The state’s Academic Accountability Index, or API, currently based solely on standardized tests, will incorporate graduation rates and other factors. Legislation establishing the Local Control Funding Formula requires that districts start tracking a range of academic performance metrics, parent involvement and school climate.

Long Beach Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser said that measures under the CORE waiver are “in total alignment” with the new state funding formula. Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said that CORE wanted to press forward now to reduce academic disparities affecting low-income and minority students but that CORE’s accountability index would prove valuable to the state. Members of the State Board of Education, in strongly endorsing the waiver earlier this year, agreed.

But in statements on Tuesday, neither Gov. Jerry Brown nor Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson was particularly complimentary or pointed to any benefit from the waiver.

“Several local school districts have now received a one-year waiver of the proficiency goals of the No Child Left Behind law,” said Evan Westrup, the governor’s press secretary. “From our perspective, however, the primary challenge is to implement vigorously the landmark Local Control Funding Formula and the Common CORE curriculum.”

“All California schools deserve relief from the unworkable mandates of No Child Left Behind, so it’s noteworthy that a few districts have — temporarily at least — managed to navigate the complex waiver requirements imposed by the Administration,” Torlakson said. “I continue to believe … that relief from the failings of federal policy should not be reserved only for those prepared to provide Washington an ever-expanding role in the operation of California’s public schools.”

A collaborative model

The CORE superintendents based their plan on the work of Canadian author Michael Fullan, who introduced in Ontario a collaborative model of school improvement that he contrasts with the top-down “blame and shame” interventions in which low-performing schools have been closed or their teachers replaced under NCLB.

Instead, CORE will identify highly successful schools and place them as partners with low performers. Fullan emphasizes “non-judgmental” efforts to improve instruction based on a collective “moral imperative” to do right by all children: Only if there is little improvement after several years of work will stronger actions be required.

Fullan, who described this process to 450 CORE district teachers and administrators last week in San Francisco, will likely be hired as an adviser during the waiver’s roll-out. He already has worked in several CORE districts.

CORE’s superintendents, however, can expect initial resistance.

Vogel and union leaders in the CORE districts blasted the superintendents for paying lip service to Fullan while ignoring them in the creation of a waiver that includes commitments for new teacher evaluations.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Susan Mercer, president of the Santa Ana Teachers Association. The wavier “takes away the voice of the teachers. It’s top-down and a step backward. Reform only happens when everyone works together to make change.”

While  acknowledging that unions were not involved in developing the waiver, Deasy said “they must be involved as we start our journey today.” And he said that nothing in the waiver superseded teachers’ bargaining rights.

Two evaluation options

To qualify for a waiver, the CORE districts had to commit to use growth in student achievement as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations. Most teachers unions oppose this, although the Stull Act, the state law on evaluations, also requires it.

CORE’s application offered two options.

This year, the districts will consult with unions on the criteria for an evaluation; bargaining would occur after the first year of a waiver. A new system would take effect in the third year of a waiver, assuming there is one. If teachers did not agree to one of the options, the district would no longer qualify for a waiver.

Cross-section of outside monitors

The approved waiver has several key changes from what CORE had proposed in May:

Its biannual meetings  will be subject to the state’s open meeting law. Among those who will appoint one representative are the governor, the State Board of Education, the California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association, the State Board of Education, the Association of California School Administrators Association, the state PTA, the California County Superintendents Education Services Association, Education Trust-West (an advocate for minority students), the California Collaborative on District Reform and groups representing students with disabilities, English learners and higher education research organizations.

Staff writers Susan Frey and Kathryn Baron contributed to this report. Check back for updates to this story.

*Note: Previous versions incorrectly characterized the approval as a collective waiver for the CORE districts. The Department of Education is granting individual waivers to the eight districts in the CORE network. The distinction is important, because the feds will monitor each district separately for compliance, not through CORE.

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