A majority of State Board of Education members expressed strong support at their meeting Thursday for a consortium of districts’ unconventional request for a waiver from constraints of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
“Congratulations,” Board member Carl Cohn told two superintendents representing the nine districts in the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, seeking the waiver. “This restores our state’s reputation for bold experimentation. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the federal government is committed to this bold experimentation.”
Board members unanimously authorized State Board President Mike Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to draft a formal comment on the waiver request, reflecting Board members’ discussion at their meeting, to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The State Board has no authority to block the waiver, but federal officials will consider its comments. Districts hope the waiver will be approved this spring to take effect next fall.
The CORE districts, comprising more than one million students, decided to seek a combined district waiver after the U.S. Department of Education rejected the state’s waiver proposal as not meeting federal requirements, including an evaluation system of teachers incorporating standardized test scores. Forty-five states either have received a waiver or have applied for one. Including three of the state’s four largest districts, the nine CORE applicants, all unified districts, are Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Sacramento City, Santa Ana, Oakland, Clovis and Sanger.
This would be the first time districts have sought relief from some of the key penalties of NCLB, in exchange for commitments that include improving the lowest performing districts and undertaking data-driven staff evaluations. If it’s approved, CORE would make the waiver available to any district in the state that signs an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, pledging to abide by the waiver requirements. Among the benefits of a waiver, districts would have more control over 20 percent of their Title I funding – more than $100 million for the CORE districts alone – that is now mandated for after-school tutoring and transporting students to schools not facing academic sanctions.
In public comments, Morgan Hill Unified Superintendent Wesley Smith
and Jurupa Unified Superintendent Elliott Duchon indicated that colleagues in other districts would be lining up to join CORE if they get the chance. “All of Santa Clara County supports the CORE waiver,” said Smith.
CORE’s ‘moral imperative’
Oakland Unified Superintendent Tony Smith and Long Beach Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser, speaking for the CORE districts, acknowledged they were breaking new ground, and their proposal probably didn’t cover all requirements.
One area of scrutiny will be monitoring. The federal Department of Education relies on state departments of education to hold districts accountable for meeting commitments in the NCLB waiver. The CORE districts, without involving the California Department of Education, would take a different tack, relying on peer review, making district data – including racial and ethnic subgroups – available through a contract with the John Gardner Center for Youth at Stanford University, and establishing multi-district partnerships of teachers and administrators to help each other improve. This new model, said Steinhauser, would shift from a system based on “compliance to one based on collective responsibility.”
Long Beach and Fresno Unified started the first such successful partnership years ago, and it includes monthly meetings of staff from both districts. The concept has expanded through CORE to focus on implementing the Common Core standards, which is also a federal requirement for a waiver.
NCLB requires that every student in 3rd through 8th grade and one grade in high school be tested annually in English language arts and math. The CORE application would shift the emphasis for standardized tests to a range of measures that would include school culture and climate. The proposal calls for using local and interim tests, but, for accountability purposes under NCLB, testing only students in the highest grade in each school, such as 5th, 8th and 11th or 12th.
Board member Sue Burr questioned whether CORE would have the authority to deviate from NCLB’s regimen of testing in every grade.
Oakland’s Tony Smith acknowledged CORE was a “strong departure from what they (federal officials) are expecting. We expect pushback.” They viewed their proposal as “an ice breaker” in negotiations with federal officials.
Steinhauser said the CORE districts felt there was “a moral imperative to push principles of their proposal.”
Several board members viewed this as a strength of the proposal and potentially a model the state could use if it eventually reapplied for a waiver.
Trish Williams said she applauded CORE’s initiative and the proposal’s imagination. “The cross-collaboration is fantastic,” she said. “I admire setting a precedent and example for others, and pushing the Department of Education to be as bold as it thinks it is.”
Board member Bruce Holaday said that the CORE proposal is “what we want to see on a grander level,” while acknowledging that that the proposal’s strengths – “creativity and innovation” – may “not be as pretty once you get down in the weeds.”
Can it be scaled?
In a light moment, Kirst remarked on the “kumbaya” of his colleagues’ comments before getting more specific regarding potential challenges of CORE’s open-ended offer to other districts: “How much to you want to expand? Do you lose your sense of peer review when you scale up? Would the model work at 100, 200 districts?”
This is not about “exceptionalism” of a few districts, Tony Smith replied, but for all districts that agree to the conditions and the accountability. CORE districts alone can’t support all districts to do this kind of work; districts will have to create their own networks for collaboration, he said.
Steinhauser predicted that not all districts would be willing to do the “hard work” and some will watch from the sidelines or decide that joining is not what’s best for them. Looking ahead, CORE districts would prefer a state waiver and envision this as the first step, he said.
Board member Patricia Rucker, whose day job is as a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, focused on the lack of details on teacher and administrator evaluations. The waiver application did not require the approval of teachers unions. Rucker pressed whether CORE was implying that unions were in accord with the proposal’s impact on teacher contracts.
Steinhauser said the districts would have extensive discussions with teachers, parents and community groups if the three-year waiver is approved. At this point, the proposal remains on the “big principle level.” But he insisted that specific aspects of the evaluation, such as how much weight would be given to various measures of teacher effectiveness, would be left to each district to determine. Collaborative relationships with teachers on the local level is critical, he indicated.
In his questioning, Superintendent Torlakson honed in on the relationship between the federal government, CORE and the state Department of Education, which now is responsible for overseeing districts’ compliance with NCLB.
Williams urged him and Kirst not to make specific concerns over monitoring the crux of a letter to Duncan. Focus on the potential benefits of the proposal, she advised. “Don’t get hung up on how things have always been.”
Senior reporter Kathryn Baron contributed to this report.