The waivers that eight large California school districts got this week from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan are yet another measure of the power of the federal law they tried to escape from.
The law has been cumbersome and stupid enough to prompt them — and many states — to seek better ways to pursue the same, or better, goals. But the waivers are not the end of this odyssey; they’re barely the beginning.
The law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was commendably designed to force local districts to pay as much attention to the education of poor, minority and immigrant kids as they paid to all other children.
To do that, it required schools receiving federal Title I funds to get all major subgroups of students to proficiency in math and English — all of them — by 2014, and imposed an increasingly severe set of sometimes mindless sanctions on schools not on track to that goal.
But since it allowed states to set their own standards, it was also an invitation to dumb down tests and curricula. It led in some states to cheating by teachers and administrators and to no end of public confusion when schools were rated excellent by state criteria and failing under the federal definitions.
It was therefore no wonder why nearly all states, and now the eight big California districts (grouped together as CORE (California Office to Reform Education), tried to craft programs with what Duncan called “rigorous expectations” that would allow them to get out from under the federal requirements. In addition to Sacramento, CORE, which comprises some one million students, includes the districts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland, Santa Ana, Fresno and Sanger.
Although 39 states got waivers from Duncan, California, which did not meet Duncan’s demands, wasn’t one of them. The biggest stumbling block was that teacher evaluations had to be based in part on student test scores.
And so the CORE districts created their own “School Quality Improvement System” (SQIS) which, in addition to academic preparedness, “values multiple measures of student success in social/emotional development, as well as the significant importance of a school’s culture and climate.”
When you screen out the jargon, you end up with a broad set of criteria and accountability measures that include not just test scores, but graduation rates, dropout rates, suspension and expulsion rates; the rate at which English learners are redesignated English proficient; parent, student and teacher surveys; and some, like student grit and determination, that may defy all measurement.
Those criteria, as some of the superintendents of the CORE districts pointed out, are closely aligned with the new criteria in Gov. Jerry Brown’s new Local Control Funding Formula and other new state laws — and with the broader national swing away from narrow test-based numbers.
But there are lot of blanks left to fill in — indeed, the whole scheme and the remarks made by the superintendents at two telephone press events this week give it the feel of a work in progress. The waiver is only for a year, hardly enough time to put in place new accountability systems, much less judge their viability.
More important, perhaps, is that all the evaluation plans, including the use of student test scores in judging teachers, have to be negotiated with local unions, few of which are warmly disposed toward this deal.
California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel called it “counterproductive and divisive.” Scott Smith, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, historically one of the most intransigent of all teachers unions, called it “a terrible distraction.” It’s not a good way to begin.
Rick Miller, the executive director of CORE, says he fully expects the waivers to be extended. And there’s always the chance, as Duncan said, that major revisions in the federal education law will make the whole issue moot. But given Washington’s political climate, that’s probably a vain hope.
And there are other questions. Again, who will rescue the kids in bad schools? Who can fix them? And while some recent legal rulings loosened the contractual knots requiring all teacher layoffs to begin with the most recent (and sometimes the best) hires, there’s still no certainty that the eight CORE districts, or any others, will be able to staff the most difficult schools with outstanding teachers.
NCLB’s requirement that all schools be taught by “highly qualified” teachers became a joke so long ago that it’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. In the meantime, it’s become an open secret that the least experienced, least competent teachers tend to cluster and churn in the schools with the highest concentrations of poor and minority kids.
It’s encouraging that eight big districts are working together in developing quality standards consistent with state requirements. But huge questions remain, not least, finally, questions about the further demands that federal bureaucrats — most of whom strongly oppose local waivers — are likely to make as the locals fill in those blanks.
This commentary was first published in the Sacramento Bee.
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report.
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