ESEA waivers: Are they worth the trouble?

With a week to go until the February 21 February 28 deadline* for the
second round of Secretary Duncan’s ESEA Waiverpalooza, states nationwide are
studying the results of Round One to figure out what federal officials did—and
didn’t—approve. And they are asking themselves a question: Is it even worth it?
(A few states—including California
and Pennsylvania
have already decided: no.)

In the end, I suspect that most of the 28 states that have
indicated an interest in a waiver will file for one, if only because, by this
point, they’ve already sunk thousands of man-hours and tens of thousands of
dollars into the process. And some of the flexibility provided by the feds to
the first ten approved states is for real—getting rid of the “100 percent
proficient by 2014” deadline; allowing all Title I schools to spend their
dollars in a “schoolwide” manner; eliminating the ill-designed supplemental
services program; ending the “highly qualified teachers” mandate.

But what about the accountability policies at the heart of
No Child Left Behind? Just how much leeway did the Administration actually
provide? Let’s consider three big problems with current law, and whether the
waiver process fixed them.

Problem
#1: A vision of “improvement” that looks at how this year’s cohort compares to
last year’s, rather than individual student growth over time.

A few leading
states—I’m thinking of Colorado especially—have leapfrogged several generations
by focusing on the performance trajectories of individual students, rather than
looking at different cohorts of kids over time. In the Colorado system, the goal is for schools to
put their students on a course to be college and career ready by the end of
high school. That creates strong incentives for schools to accelerate the progress
of kids who are far behind, while paying attention to kids at the middle and
top of the performance spectrum, too. This makes perfect sense, right?

    Not according to the bean counters on Maryland Avenue.
    They insisted that Colorado
    add to its system of annual targets for getting a certain number of students to
    “proficiency”—with the expectation that an increasing number of kids would
    reach that target every year.

    But that’s Accountability 1.0 thinking. Why do
    we care about how this year’s fourth graders perform versus last year’s fourth
    graders? Or whether more fourth graders reached “proficient”? What matters is
    whether kids are on track for college and career readiness—and whether students
    make enough progress over the school year to get them onto this trajectory. At
    least in the Colorado
    case, the feds have taken an elegant and rational system and made it more
    complicated and convoluted.

    Problem
    #2: A race-based system of school accountability.

    No Child Left Behind
    played a critical role in exposing the achievement gaps that plague so many of
    our schools. Continuing to demand transparency around subgroup performance
    makes eminent sense. But requiring that accountability systems be explicitly
    race-based is problematic, especially as the conception of “race” continues to
    change and an increasing number of students view themselves as multiracial.
    Furthermore, policies that encourage schools to literally “narrow the gap”
    enshrine in public policy the notion that we are rooting for white, Asian, and
    affluent students to do worse, or at least do no better. This is nuts. Yet if
    anything, the waiver process has exacerbated this problem.

      Back to Colorado.
      Its focus on individual performance mitigates the need for subgroups because it
      creates strong incentives for schools to focus on their lowest achievers, many
      of whom belong to one or more of the various subgroups. (These kids generally
      have to make a LOT of progress to be on track
      for college and career readiness.) But that wasn’t enough for the Department;
      Uncle Sam wanted subgroup accountability, too.

      Or consider Florida. Its longstanding accountability
      system includes a weight for the growth of a school’s lowest performing
      quartile. This excellent provision is another way to pressure schools to pay
      attention to their educationally neediest kids. So how did this system fare
      with federal officials? Not well. The same bean-counters (or peer reviewers, or
      both, it’s hard to be sure) demanded that Florida promise to intervene in schools
      that get positive school ratings – A’s and B’s even – if one or more of their
      subgroups isn’t up to par. But they can only get A’s or B’s if their low
      performing students are making strong progress. Bottom line: Florida got overruled.

      Problem
      #3: Labeling everyone a failure means nobody’s a failure.

      Probably the
      biggest complaint about No Child Left Behind was that it over-identified
      schools and districts as failing, meaning that the very worst institutions—the
      full-blown dropout factories—got lost in the mix. So one goal of the waiver
      process is to bring the number of failing schools down to a more realistic
      number, right?

        Then try to explain the feds’
        reaction to Tennessee’s
        proposal. In its explanation of the changes that Tennessee made to its original proposal, the
        Department of Education boasted that “based on data from the 2010-2011 school
        year, 105 of 135 districts would be identified.” And this is a good thing?

        The feds also bragged that
        Minnesota agreed (under pressure, one assumes) to drop the “safe harbor”
        provision from its accountability system—meaning schools that have low
        proficiency rates but are making great progress will no longer escape the
        “failing schools” label. What’s the point of that?

        So again, is
        “flexibility” worth it? For states hoping to adopt next-generation
        accountability systems—those that move beyond the poor design choices of No
        Child Left Behind—the answer appears to be no. But hey, getting rid of the
        highly qualified teachers mandate is nice.

        ___

        * Update: The deadline for the second round of ESEA waivers, originally February 21, was pushed back to February 28.

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