In my last post and in others on this blog, we have commented that requiring states to adopt more rigorous teacher evaluation systems in exchange for getting off the hook on the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions in NCLB is a pretty lousy deal. States will be much more enticed to submit a waiver proposal to escape the 100% proficiency cliff that is looming before them. However, I think the biggest relief states may get from winning a waiver is not in scrapping their proficiency targets or HQT, but rather in burying AYP once and for all and moving forward with new, state-determined accountability systems. This is because AYP forces states to set-aside a maximum of 20% of their Title I funds for weak school improvement mechanisms – without AYP, these funds can instead be used to support interventions that may actually work.
Not only is AYP incredibly limiting in the information it provides, but its prescriptions are also extremely inflexible. AYP only differentiates schools along two dimensions: 1) did you pass or fail to make AYP? and 2) if you failed, how many years in a row have you failed? Here’s an example. Middle school A has not made AYP for 3 years in a row because all of its minority subgroups were below the benchmark in reading and math at every grade level. Middle school B has also failed to make AYP for 3 years consecutively, but the reason has changed each year. The first year, its Hispanic students were below the target in 6th grade math. In year 2, its special education students didn’t meet the benchmark in 6th grade math. And in the next year, Hispanic and low-income students were below the target in 8th grade math.
These schools are clearly different; low achievement at middle school A is widespread and systemic, while middle school B is having difficulties with its math program for certain subgroups. But AYP treats them the same – both schools would have to allow parents to choose for their child to transfer to another district school that was not labeled as ‘failing’ or to receive supplemental educational services (SES). SES basically means state-approved tutoring typically offered by the school, district, or private providers. For schools that have failed to make AYP for 3 or more years, NCLB requires states to set-aside 20% of Title I funding to pay for SES and transportation costs related to school choice. In 2010, this maximum set-aside was equal to over $2.7 billion (see the table below for a state-by-state breakdown of the numbers from the Department of Education).
What’s worse is that SES and school choice-based interventions don’t appear to work very well. For starters, few parents sign their kids up to participate, and districts don’t fully utilize the funding. In our table below, we found that the participation rate of eligible students in school choice and/or SES in 2010 averaged just under 20%, with the rate in some states below 1%. And states don’t utilize all of the 20% set-aside for these purposes; a GAO report found that districts, on average, spent just 42% of the set-aside. If a district receives more than it spends, it can utilize the remaining funds on other Title I programs.
Additionally, the quality of SES providers varies greatly, and its effect on individual student achievement depends on the quality and intensity of the services. With so few students opting-in to receive SES, a vast majority of students who need support may not receive it. Based on the average state participation rate and the maximum set-aside, we estimate that out of the $2.7 billion, $683 million was spent on SES and choice in 2010. Because our methodology masks differences between districts within states, this figure is likely somewhat overstated.
So what does this have to do with the waivers? If states abandon AYP for their own system, the 20% set-aside in Title I can be used for other school improvement efforts… efforts that may actually work. Rather than an individual approach to school turnaround, where certain students receive supports, states could take a systemic, school-wide approach and expand their School Improvement Grant activities to encompass more schools, not just those that were in the bottom 5% of performance.
How would this work? First, the new accountability system enacted in a state’s waiver proposal can specifically diagnose the challenges at each struggling school. Then, the funds previously required to be spent on SES and choice can be used for interventions that support this diagnosis. Middle school B could focus their efforts on math – professional development for teachers, math coaching, new curriculum, etc. Middle school A may be better off taking one of the more comprehensive and transformative approaches from the SIG grants. In the first round SIG, 843 schools were awarded a maximum of $6 million over 3 years. Our $683 million estimate means that an additional 500-600 schools may be able to receive $1 million annually towards school turnaround. Essentially, the waivers give states a huge opportunity to expand their turnaround efforts, addressing concerns that states are only focusing the lowest of the low-performing schools.
While states certainly haven’t figured out the exact science behind school turnaround yet, this approach provides much more flexibility than AYP. In the waiver process, the Department should address that the old set-aside must still be spent for school improvement – ensuring that states do not use these “new” Title I funds to offset budget cuts or spend less on disadvantaged schools. Perhaps states will want to build out their own capacity to support school turnarounds, hiring support and technical assistance staff at their state education agencies. Other states may expand their existing SIG programs to more schools or invest in resources to link teacher evaluations to school professional development programs. I’m sure there are dozens of other promising ideas for school improvement that simply need resources and leadership to get started. The point is that states will have greater discretion and flexibility in using these Title I funds for improvement in ways that make sense, given each state’s capacity and the unique challenges its school are facing. And that is a deal worth making.
Table compiled by Education Sector intern Scott Baumgartner.