CORE districts want state waiver to continue their work

July 31, 2016

Long Beach Unified says that data from the CORE school reports help parents, teachers and students to refine their schools' academic goals and spending priorities.

The six California school districts that designed their own school accountability and improvement model are asking the State Board of Education for permission to continue to develop their hybrid system in 2017-18 and beyond. The board will discuss and possibly vote on the proposal at its next meeting in September.

The districts have operated through a nonprofit, the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. They established a School Quality Improvement System under a waiver from funding restrictions and penalties of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan granted in 2013. But the waiver ended when Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act and turned over to the states the job of designing their own new school accountability systems using multiple measures of achievement. CORE and the California State Board of Education have taken that approach.

In two July letters to the State Board of Education (here and here), CORE requested that it be designated a research pilot, providing data and insights to the board as it considers broadening its initial accountability system into areas in which the CORE districts are already doing innovative work. CORE’s continued efforts would help the state reach its goal of creating a single, coherent state and federal school improvement system, CORE Executive Director Rick Miller wrote.

The six CORE waiver districts include five of the seven largest districts in the state – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco and Santa Ana – plus Oakland. Their students make up about a million of the state’s 6 million students. Three districts participating in CORE that didn’t apply for or dropped out of the waiver – Sacramento City, Garden Grove and Sanger – also are interested in the new application.

CORE released its first school report cards last December. Like the concept that the state board is developing, the CORE system takes a broad view of a school, in which test scores are only one element. Some of the metrics used by both systems are identical, including suspension and graduation rates and English learner proficiency measures. In both systems, Smarter Balanced test results in math and English language arts factor in both annual scores and rate of progress over time. Like CORE, the state board plans to present information as a dashboard.

But there are also significant differences. CORE doesn’t have a college and career readiness indicator, using metrics like the passage rate of Advanced Placement tests or career pathway programs, which the state board has approved in concept. But CORE has a high school readiness indicator, which includes 8th grade attendance rates and grades, that’s not currently on the state board’s list. As a district collaborative, CORE can compile data, like 8th-grade subject grades, that the state currently does not collect.

As required by the waiver, the CORE school index combines all of the measures to produce a school rating between 0 and 100. The state board opposes using a summative ranking of a school or district.

CORE also is doing work in a controversial area by including school climate surveys of parents, teachers and students, as well as students’ self-assessments of skills like self-management and perseverance, in the school reports. Some researchers have expressed strong reservations about linking measures of social and emotional skills to school accountability; others have said the approach is worth investigating.

Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, a state can ask the U.S. Department of Education to grant a waiver from its accountability system, if it can show it would enhance student achievement. CORE, in its most recent letter, said that it would align its accountability index with state and federal requirements. This would include adopting the state indicators, like the college and career readiness measure, and then adding social and emotional measures and high school readiness as local indicators, as allowed by the Local Control Funding Formula.

Union opposition

CORE wants to raise the issue in September because it hopes the state will include the waiver request as part of the state’s ESSA compliance plan that must be sent to the federal government later this year.

CORE can anticipate opposition from the California Teachers Association and local teachers unions. They fought the original federal waiver, which they said was written without consulting teachers. Unions also disliked a waiver requirement that student test scores be a significant factor in a teacher’s evaluation.

They restated sharp criticisms of CORE in a July 7 letter to the state board written by CTA President Eric Heins and signed by the union presidents of the waiver districts. “We believe that CORE district waivers undermine and weaken a comprehensive yet coherent approach to education reform,” they said after a lengthy critique.

The letter mistakenly assumed that CORE was seeking an extension of the original waiver, Miller said in an interview, adding that the teacher evaluations requirement died with the old waiver. “Given that it is gone, we are hopeful we can move forward,” because CORE’s data can help classroom teachers, he said. He also acknowledged that “no question, more things could have been done” to better communicate initially with teachers.

But Heins said that CORE remains a top-down system, run by superintendents. He contrasted it with State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s 30-member Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force, which he co-chaired. “We got everybody in the same room; that’s how collaboration works.”

With San Francisco Unified Superintendent Richard Carranza’s announcement this week that he plans to become superintendent in Houston, only two of CORE’s nine founding superintendents are still running their districts. They are Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified and Michael Hanson of Fresno Unified, who chairs CORE’s board of directors.

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