Nine districts submit waiver for relief from NCLB

February 28, 2013

Duncan, a close friend of President Obama as well as his secretary of education, speaks at a press conference

A collaborative of nine California school districts is submitting today a first-of-its-kind waiver seeking relief from the harshest sanctions of the No Child Left Behind law. The proposal would commit the participating districts to a new accountability system, focusing on student achievement but deemphasizing standardized test scores. The existing requirements and penalties would remain in effect for all of the other districts in the state.

If U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan consents, the districts in the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, would join the 34 states and Washington, D.C., with waivers from NCLB; ten more states have applications pending. Since California’s waiver was rejected last year, and the state is not reapplying this year, CORE is going its own way, filing for a waiver under a provision of NCLB allowing districts to submit proposals. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said Tuesday that he has read the law and agrees that Duncan has the authority to grant waivers to districts.

CORE’s accountability system would replace the current system, with most schools in Program Improvement, facing NCLB sanctions, with a three-tiered system that rewards top Schools of Distinction and identifies the 15 percent of Title I schools needing improvement. Teams of teachers from Schools of Distinction would mentor their peers in the Priority and Focus schools. All subgroups of underperforming students would have to show academic progress under a strict timeline. (Click to enlarge)

CORE is required to send its proposal to the State Board of Education for review, but under federal law the board can only comment, not block the application. CORE Executive Director Rick Miller said CORE is on schedule to formally submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education in time to be included in the next round of evaluations this spring, with implementation in the 2013-14 school year. If the waiver is approved, CORE will extend it to all districts and charter schools in the state that agree to the waiver’s conditions. The nine CORE districts seeking the waiver include three of the state’s four largest districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno Unified – as well as Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento City, Santa Ana, Sanger and Clovis, which combined serve more than a million students.

Today is this year’s application deadline for the handful of states that have not already sought relief from some of the mandates of NCLB. Although California is not reapplying, Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board haven’t ruled out another try. However, that would be at least a year away.

Miller and four CORE superintendents flew to Washington, D.C., last week to meet in person with Duncan, and afterward all said they were encouraged by the prospects for their proposal. “The secretary was very supportive of our efforts,” said Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser. “He’s been positive about our efforts to be innovative.”

Miller said he left with the impression that Duncan “clearly has a strong desire to help in California. He’s been frustrated that it hasn’t worked as a state, that would be his preference, but he saw this as a viable alternative if that doesn’t happen.”

Running toward, not away

The waiver application contains the same commitments that all states seeking waivers were required to meet: implementing Common Core or other rigorous standards preparing students for college and careers, developing a teacher evaluation process that includes the results of local and state tests, and creating an accountability system that recognizes that success is more than students’ test scores.  Non-academic dimensions such as a school’s culture and climate and social-emotion learning are given significant weight in determining what constitutes a high-achieving school.

In exchange for meeting those commitments, the districts will get relief from some of the sanctions of NCLB.  They will regain use of the 20 percent of Title I money, about $110 million, they’ve had to turn over

CORE says it will expand measures of a school’s success to include factors reflecting social and emotional learning – rates of suspension, absenteeism and as yet undefined gauges of non-cognitive skills – as well as school climate and culture, as measured by student and parent surveys, rates of identifying special education students and the progress of English learners. (Click to enlarge)

for supplemental educational services and transportation for students who want to attend schools that are meeting federal academic targets. Superintendents say those funds could be put to better use paying for professional development for Common Core, summer school and other resources that would support the new accountability system.

CORE would also roll back the clock on the percentage of students who must score at proficient or better for a school to meet the annual growth target to the 2010-11 level of 67 percent, rather than the current rate of 90 percent, giving schools time to implement the new system and see some results.

What makes the CORE plan unique is that instead of establishing this system under the authority of the State Department of Education, it relies on participating districts committing to specific conditions and responsibilities. These include openness with achievement data for all student subgroups and collaboration with other districts to improve student achievement.

The 126-page proposal states that, “At its heart, CORE’s goal is to build a new system of accountability rooted in a moral imperative to educate all children and engineered on a foundation of transparent data sharing and mutual accountability.”

A mantra of CORE districts is that they’re using this proposal to create something better for students and teachers, not to escape NCLB sanctions. “We’re trying to get a waiver to something that we think is great rather than away from something that we think is laborious,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent and CORE Chair Mike Hanson.

“This plan is designed with recognition that the expectations for meeting students’ needs have been too narrow for too long; school districts have too often been chasing success in a system that does not define success in a comprehensive or rigorous way,” they write in the proposal.

The requirement that measures of student achievement factor significantly in teacher and administrator evaluations has been a source of contention. Most of the teachers unions in the districts rejected pursuit of a joint CORE proposal for a Race to the Top grant last year because of the requirement. However, an NCLB waiver application does not require unions’ consent, and union presidents complained that they had not been consulted about the application. “We had preliminary but no substantial discussions; it was the usual thing where they talk about working with us and do not do it at all,” said Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco.

However, Miller and superintendents said they planned to work with unions on developing their own district evaluation systems. “In my opinion the waiver does not take away rights of the union, or take away any collective bargaining,” said Steinhauser.

According to the application, CORE based the evaluation framework on Greatness By Design, a report commissioned by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and developed by a task force co-chaired by Steinhauser that made recommendations on teacher effectiveness. The chapter on teacher evaluations suggested a range of measures that could be used, including scored essays and projects created by teachers, results on tests tied to the curriculum being taught, as well as observations and parent surveys.

Superintendents expressed confidence that teachers would be attracted to the alternatives to NCLB that CORE is proposing.

For example, the only standardized tests that will count toward Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal performance measure, will be those that students take in the highest grade at their school; fifth grade in a K-5 school, 8th grade in middle school and 12th grade in high school. Students would still take state exams in all grades, but those would be used as diagnostics by teachers to see if students understand the material or if they need more support or a different type of instruction.

Miller said the hope is this will encourage teachers to work together across grade levels. “We like the notion of stepping back from the stress of assessment. We think all those decisions that go along with this are positive, such as putting more support at third grade to make sure the students are ready for grade five,” said Miller. “No other state has proposed this.”

Beyond the textbook

Non-academic dimensions such as a school’s culture and climate and social-emotional learning receive significant weight from CORE in determining what constitutes a high-achieving school. Districts would have to collect, submit and publish data on a variety of indicators of success such as graduation and dropout rates, expulsions and suspensions, attendance, and surveys of student and community perceptions of their schools.

Because the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, known as CALPADS, isn’t collecting all the data that’s needed, CORE plans to work with a third-party data collection service run by a non-governmental agency: The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University.

Miller insists that CORE has no intention of creating a shadow state department of education. He says the CORE office will remain staffed by a handful of people and districts will be self-governed – with consequences. Those that don’t meet the conditions of the waiver will be forced back into the original NCLB regulations and subject again to the sanctions of the law.

“Our waiver submission is about our collective responsibility, teacher-to-teacher, principal-to-principal, district-to-district, and school-to-school to make something better; not who’s going to get punished for not hitting a target set by someone outside our local environment,” said Fresno Unified’s Hanson.

An early partnership between Fresno and Long Beach Unified is a forebear of and model for CORE and its proposal for cross-district pollination. The State Department of Education approved the Fresno-Long Beach Learning Partnership in 2008, giving the districts greater flexibility to use state and federal funds to work jointly on improving instruction and developing leaders who were prepared to work collaboratively with another district. “It worked beyond my own expectations,” said Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser.

But Steinhauser acknowledges that there will be challenges if dozens, or potentially hundreds of districts choose to sign on to the CORE program. “I would say that CORE is going to have a learning curve, but I do believe it’s doable because of everybody working together,” he said.

Some of the elements of the accountability plan are similar to those being discussed by the State Board of Education under SB 1458, the bill by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that calls for a broader accountability system using college and career readiness indicators, dropout rates and student expulsions to determine a school’s Academic Performance Index. CORE superintendents don’t see their proposal as a conflict; they see it as an opportunity for the state.

“To me this is a pilot on the state level,” said Steinhauser. “Once we get started the state has an opportunity to be learning partners side-by-side with us, to see how’s it’s working and what’s not working, and if they write a waiver they can learn from us.”


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