This Thanksgiving, those of us following the ESEA reauthorization debate have a lot to be thankful for. Who’d have thought the last few months would be so exciting?
We have a bipartisan (sort of) Senate ESEA Reauthorization bill passed out of the HELP Committee. Depending on your point of view, you could be thankful for a lot of things here: a) that a reauthorization bill has gotten this far in the legislative process to begin with, b) that the bill has been modified in committee to give even more discretion to state education agencies, or c) that the legislative prospects of this watered-down (dare I say, bad?) bill have faded.
But that’s not all we have to be thankful for. There is even more to digest in the cornucopia of ESEA reauthorization goodness. That’s because 11 states – Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee – submitted their ESEA waiver requests to the Department for peer review last week. And they are now available online! While I can’t say I have gleaned everything from the 100+ pages each state submitted, here are my first impressions of the waiver requests.
- These states have already been recognized as leading the way. All but 4 of the 11 have won a Race to the Top grant or are eligible for the 3rd round of RTTT. Within the 4 remaining states, the chief school officers in Indiana and New Mexico have been promoting ambitious reforms to their state’s accountability system, utilizing a new A-F school grading system. So I was most surprised to see Oklahoma and Minnesota among the early-bird applications. It’s also worth noting that all 11 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, although Minnesota did not adopt the math standards and Kentucky adopted an earlier draft of the standards.
- These states, however, aren’t always leading the way on teacher and principal evaluations. Only 5 of the 11 states indicated in their waiver request that they had developed and adopted all of the guidelines required for teacher and principal evaluation systems. These guidelines include making student growth a significant factor in the evaluation, using the evaluation for continuous improvement of instruction, including at least three levels of performance, and using results to inform personnel decisions. Surprisingly, 3 of the early-bird states (Kentucky, New Mexico, and New Jersey) had not adopted any of the guidelines.
- All but one of the states is a member of the PARCC assessment consortia. And 8 of the states are governing members of PARCC, meaning they plan to use the PARCC-developed assessments to measure student achievement on Common Core. Colorado and Kentucky are still deciding whether they’ll use the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests, and Minnesota hasn’t joined either consortium. I am sure Smarter Balanced states will apply in the next round of waivers, but it’s odd that these early bird states overwhelmingly come from the PARCC group.
- Nearly every state chose “Option C” and designed their own AMOs. States could design annual performance targets for schools and districts from three options: A) reduce the number of students not meeting proficiency targets by 50% over 6 years, B) achieve 100% proficiency by 2020, or C) something else. Given states’ track record of preferring the “other” option, it’s not too surprising that most states chose C. And let’s be honest, no state was going to choose B, since it’s basically the same kind of AMO states detested under No Child Left Behind. But two things are noteworthy here: 1) States are not unwilling to develop some kind of performance target, and 2) even when states designed their own AMOs, most of them actually designed something like option A, with a slight twist. For example, Tennessee wants to reduce both the percentage of students not proficient and achievement gaps by 50% within eight years.
- If you thought AYP was confusing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Sure there were pesky things like n-sizes, confidence intervals, and safe harbor, but it was explicitly clear what the annual target for student performance was in math and reading in each state under AYP. Based on these waiver proposals, next-generation accountability systems will be much more complex. In some ways, this is a good thing. AYP’s dichotomous pass-or-fail label often could not distinguish between schools that were truly failing and schools that had low proficiency rates, but were actually seeing high levels of student growth. In 9 states, their waiver request proposes to use not only status measures of achievement, but also student growth as part of their AMOs. Unfortunately, adding growth and other factors into the accountability mix adds technical complexity and makes it more difficult to understand exactly how a school was evaluated. For instance, Kentucky’s new AMO for a school that “needs improvement” would be to improve school performance (a composite measure of several metrics like achievement, student growth, and gaps between students) by 1 standard deviation in five years. For 99% of people (no, not that 99%) the second you say “standard deviation,” you’ve lost them. So the accountability system may be “better,” but it’s likely that fewer parents, teachers, and district leaders will be able to understand and explain how it works. Does this complexity undermine the transparency of a state’s accountability system? I don’t have the answer, but it’s certainly something I’ll be watching as more states apply for waivers in the next round.