Panel recommends continuing districts’ waiver from NCLB

June 25, 2015

Each summer, CORE holds multi-day summer institutes for teachers in member districts on developing strategies and assessments for teaching the Common Core standards in math and English language arts.

An oversight committee is recommending that the U.S. Department of Education again extend a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law to six California school districts, collectively known as CORE.

Some of the districts had not met the deadline for improvements, particularly for adopting key parts of a new teacher evaluation system, but the committee concluded that all had shown enough overall progress to merit an extension.

“In order to support progress and continual learning, the Oversight Panel chose to recommend continued implementation of the waivers so that all districts, even those struggling to make progress in certain areas, are supported in furthering this important work,” David Plank, the committee’s chair, wrote in a June 18 letter to federal officials. The seven members of the committee, which included researchers and representatives of school and civil rights organizations, endorsed the waivers following an all-day review earlier this month.

CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, is a nonprofit organization that the districts formed to promote their work. The districts include three of the state’s largest unified districts: Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno, along with Santa Ana, San Francisco and Oakland. Together they enroll about 1 million students.

Federal officials will consider the committee’s recommendation; a decision on whether to extend the waiver is expected before the start of the new school year. Rick Miller, CORE’s executive director and a former California deputy state superintendent, said he was optimistic the waiver would be approved for one or three years. CORE also has asked federal officials to permit other California districts that join CORE to seek the waiver, starting in fall 2016. Those districts would have to make the same commitments to improvement, which include extensive data collection and analysis and collaboration with member districts.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has granted 42 states a wavier from the law in response to a deadlocked Congress’ failure to amend or rewrite No Child Left Behind, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So far this year, Duncan has extended the waiver for an additional three or, in some cases, four years, for a dozen states and Washington, D.C., with more approvals expected in coming months (see here and here).

The biggest benefit of the waiver is giving school districts discretion over 20 percent of federal Title I money, which provides funding for low-income children, that they would have spent transporting students to better-performing schools and paying outside tutoring companies. States with waivers also have more discretion to decide how to improve their lowest-performing schools.

In 2013, after Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education balked at the conditions that Duncan required for a state wavier, the CORE districts sought and got the only waivers awarded to districts nationwide. Sanger Unified, where a longtime superintendent retired, and Sacramento City Unified, where resistance among teachers to the waiver was strong, were initially part of the waiver but have since dropped out while remaining affiliated with CORE.

In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Education gave a one-year waiver extension to the districts. While acknowledging that they faced “very challenging work,” the department put the districts on “high-risk” status because they had not completed work on some accountability metrics and had not progressed far enough in meeting requirements for a new teacher evaluation system, including the use of student test scores. CORE is not alone; other states also have struggled with teacher evaluations, and Duncan in August 2014 said they could seek a year’s extension.

The CORE superintendents and Miller say their distinct approach offers a model that could benefit California as the state board and other policy makers create a new school accountability system based on multiple measures, rather than using standardized tests alone. As one condition of the waiver, CORE districts are creating a School Quality Improvement Index, which will base 60 percent of a school’s score on students’ academic performance and 40 percent on indicators of school climate and culture and the difficult-to-quantify factors of perseverance and attitudes toward learning. The initial scores are due out in the fall.

The districts had to fulfill three key requirements, with multiple elements, to satisfy the conditions of the waiver:

 “I have been researching how to turn around low-performing schools for 25 years. I have never seen greater accountability at a district level than what I saw in these reports.” – Jennifer O’Day

The differences among districts were most pronounced regarding teacher evaluations. Long Beach already had a satisfactory system in place at the time of the waiver, and Fresno, following 200 hours of negotiations, is ready to move ahead. But teachers in only one school in Santa Ana agreed to do a trial run in 2015-16, a year behind the waiver timeline, and there is no commitment from the teachers union beyond that. Former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy antagonized United Teachers Los Angeles by creating a pilot evaluation system without consulting the union. Talks started from scratch when he resigned last year. In the teachers contract ratified in May, the union agreed to add a third rating category– the minimum under the waiver – and to continue discussions next year.

Oversight committee members said they recognized that some districts were out of compliance but agreed that cutting off the waiver would be a worse option. Ending the waiver would remove leverage for improvement, said Manuel Buenrostro, a policy and programs officer representing the California School Boards Association. “We should cite the fact that there are challenges, and districts need more time.”

The oversight panel served as a check on the CORE districts’ peer reviews. Administrators from two teams made up of three districts each – San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland; and Santa Ana, Fresno and Long Beach – met three or four times over the year to review districts’ performance data and self-evaluations. They graded the progress toward satisfying the conditions of the waiver. The feedback from other districts led to revisions and helped clarify thinking, said Michelle Rodriguez, assistant superintendent of Santa Ana Unified.

Miller, CORE’s executive director, praised the process of peer evaluations and criticism as more constructive than the traditional approach of  “checking boxes” to verify compliance. Members of the oversight panel agreed for the most part.

“I have been researching how to turn around low-performing schools for 25 years. I have never seen greater accountability at a district level than what I saw in these reports,” said Jennifer O’Day, a researcher and policy analyst with American Institutes for Research who also chairs the California Collaborative on District Reform.

The seven oversight panel members had access to hundreds of pages of peer reviews and conducted a half-hour presentation and discussion with each district before voting on the individual district waivers. The vote in each case was unanimous, although Rivas, a last-minute fill-in, abstained from the vote on Los Angeles Unified, saying he didn’t have enough information about the district’s work to close the achievement gap.

The oversight panel was supposed to have representatives from a cross-section of 14 organizations and government agencies. But Gov. Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and the California Teachers Association, which opposed the waiver, declined to send voting representatives. The State Board of Education sent an observer.

The only superintendent to attend the day-long oversight meeting, Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified, made his position on the waiver extension clear. The waiver, providing flexibility in Title I funding, shifting attention to “continuous improvement” and coinciding with the transition to local control through the LCAP process “came at a perfect time,” he said. “I am more excited now about education than any time before in my life.”

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