This morning, President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and the Department of Education formally announced the details of the new NCLB flexibility package for states that are raising standards for students, teachers, and schools. For the truly wonky, the details can be found here.
The Waiver Wire has clearly been talking about the right things: the Department’s plan addresses many of the concerns we’ve been raising on this blog over the last two weeks. The broad strokes of the plan are what we’ve known all along: higher expectations for students based on better standards and assessments; state-designed accountability systems, with discretion to determine how schools should be labeled based on their performance and the interventions they should undertake; annual teacher and principal evaluation systems that are based, in part, on student’s academic growth; and funding flexibility within Title I and Title II to support these reforms.
There were a few surprises, however, tucked into the specifics of the flexibility package. First, the good news:
- “To ensure that its college- and career-ready standards are truly aligned with postsecondary expectations,” waiver-winning states will be required to publicly report college enrollment and credit-accumulation rates for all students and subgroups by district and by high school. This is a huge step forward. Test scores and graduation rates are no proof that a student was prepared for college. But collecting and reporting these specific outcomes will provide policymakers, educators, and the public with real evidence of college readiness. I would have added remediation rates to this list, but I am please that the administration is encouraging states to link high school and postsecondary outcomes.
- States will be required to provide improvement supports not just in the lowest-performing schools (the bottom 5%), but also in an additional 10% of schools. ‘Priority schools’ will receive supports similar to those in the SIG program. States will have considerable more discretion in selecting the 10% identified as ‘focus schools’ and in determining the appropriate interventions based on their needs. Importantly, these support will last for three years. This is important because it allows districts and schools to design comprehensive strategies for improvement and recognizes that these efforts take significant time and investment. Rather than adopting new strategies each year, this allows schools to make a plan and follow through on it.
- The Department is encouraging states to include evaluation plans in their waiver requests to determine whether the reform priorities (college- and career-ready standards and tests; differentiated accountability and turnaround strategies; teacher and principal evaluations) actually work. The Department will help states “determine the feasibility and design of the evaluation” and “fund and conduct the evaluation in partnership” with states. This emphasis on high-quality research, and federal support for it, will help build knowledge in the field of successful practices and strategies. This kind of evaluation has been lacking in the implementation of Race to the Top and SIG thus far, and is much needed.
Unfortunately, one component of the flexibility package comes up short of where it needs to be. Once a state has designed and implemented principal and teacher evaluations, they must be used to support continuous improvement and make personnel decisions. However, states will not be required to use the new evaluation systems to ensure that low-income and minority children are equally likely to be taught by effective teachers. Specifically, the Department says: “Once these evaluation and support systems are in place, an SEA may use data from these systems to meet the requirements… that it ensure… poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”
This feels like a cop-out to me. I know teacher assignment based on these kinds of evaluations is a tricky – and politically risky – business. There are many factors that make a teacher a “good fit” for a particular school beyond their effectiveness score. And frankly, in many places teacher contracts expressly prohibit this kind of reassignment. Further, rural schools may not have enough schools or effective teachers to create an equitable distribution of high-quality teachers. But to not require states to at least report the inequities in the distribution of effective teachers seems like an oversight. Even if a district has little power over changing the distribution beyond incentives like bonuses for teachers that move to lower-performing schools, the information should, at a minimum, be transparent to the public. Without awareness and knowledge of the problem’s severity, it seems likely that poor and minority students will continue to get shortchanged.
We’ll continue to follow the flexibility package over the coming months. The first round of states will submit requests by November 14 for a December peer review; these states could begin to implement their plans during this school year. So stay tuned to the Waiver Wire for all the details.