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NCLB Waiver in Hand, CORE Districts Move Ahead

With their long sought-after flexibility waivers in hand, what happens now in the eight California districts that have won a reprieve from parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law?

For starters, each district is making immediate changes to how they spend their now freed-up Title I money that NCLB had required them to spend on providing outside tutoring and transportation services to students who attended persistently low-performing schools. Collectively, the districts are getting their hands on roughly $150 million.

In Sacramento, Superintendent Jonathan Raymond announced in a memo to district employees on Wednesday that contracts with all tutoring providers would be immediately canceled for the upcoming school year. "Instead, we will begin working with stakeholders right away to identify what types of academic interventions we will be investing those newly flexible resources in," he wrote.

Fresno Superintendent Michael Hanson told me that his district, which has culled the list of tutoring providers it has used in recent years, will continue to work with three of them whose services the district likes.

"We've got three substantial providers now who we will still be in business with," he said. Hanson declined to name the providers because the details of their arrangements with the Fresno district still must be worked out. (See Michele Molnar's full writeup on how the waiver deals a major blow to tutoring providers in California.)

In addition to Fresno and Sacramento, the eight districts that are part of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) include Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Ana, and Sanger. While most of the districts are large and urban, Sanger Unified is significantly smaller with just under 11,000 students. Much of the district, which is located southeast of Fresno, encompasses rural farm towns with significant populations of farmworker families. Two other districts that are part of CORE—Clovis and Garden Grove—did not request the waiver.

Both Sacramento and Fresno leaders said they will continue to use their Title I set-aside money to pay for busing students to higher-performing schools, part of the choice program under NCLB.

"We are not going to change anything on the transportation front at this time and expect it to continue for a few more years" before scaling it back, Hanson said.

Fresno's share of the Title I money is about $8.6 million, Hanson said. After paying for transportation and keeping the three tutoring services in place, the district will still have between $3 million and $4 million to invest in ways it deems best.

Other Investments

Two major investment areas, Hanson said, will be providing more instructional time and robust professional development to teachers in the city's most struggling schools. The district has already done this on a smaller scale in its lowest-performing schools that received federal money through the School Improvement Grant program and the achievement results have improved "dramatically," he said. The SIG schools have provided 30 additional minutes of instructional time to students.

Hanson said that for teachers and school staff members, one of the biggest changes under the waiver will be the increased accountability for more students than was previously the case under the rules of NCLB. The CORE waiver set its subgroup size for school accountability purposes at 20 students. Under NCLB rules, that size was either 100 or 50 students. Another major shift is that schools will be judged not only on achievement, but also nonacademic factors such as driving down absenteeism and suspension and expulsion rates, as well as how parents and students evaluate the culture and climate. The nonacademic factors actually encompass 40 percent of a school's "quality improvement index" under the terms of the CORE waiver.

"Getting people to understand that a good school is not just a test score in English/language arts and math is going to be a huge shift," Hanson said.

The CORE districts also have to work out how they will match higher-performing schools with lower-performing ones with similar demographics to provide mentoring, coaching and support.

Teacher Evaluations

All eight districts must get to work on negotiating new teacher evaluation systems that include student outcomes with their local teachers' unions, a task that will not be easy given that all of the union locals, as well as the California Teachers Association, expressed strong objections to the waiver. But if the districts are to extend the waiver beyond the one-year period, they must fully implement their new teacher-evaluation plans.

Hanson said hammering out an agreement with the Fresno union is a "secondary or tertiary" concern—he said he's "more than hopeful" about prospects.

In his letter to district employees, Raymond, the Sacramento schools chief, wrote that "there is no component of this waiver that supersedes our collective bargaining agreements. The waiver calls for districts to begin discussions about creating new principal and teacher evaluation tools, discussions that must be had in collaboration with our labor partners." His statement seems to suggest that they only have to talk about evaluation tools, which seems different than what the CORE waiver actually commits the districts to do.

Oversight Panel

Before it could win final approval from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for its one-of-a-kind waiver, the CORE group of districts had to create some system for outside oversight since the state department of education will no longer be in charge of enforcing the districts' federal accountability. In its original proposal, the CORE districts were essentially going to police one another and judge how schools were meeting goals and expectations through peer review.

"Some of the feedback we got was that it would be like the fox guarding the hen house," said Rick Miller, CORE's executive director of CORE. "We hadn't thought of it in those terms, but when the [Education Department] brought it up, it made sense."

The Education Department let the districts come up with the oversight model, which will consist of a panel of 14 individuals who represent a range of education organizations and interest groups across California.

Among the members will be representatives from the California Teachers Association, the state school boards group, the county offices of education, the statewide administrators' organization, the PTA, as well as individuals from the governor's office, the state board of education, and the state department of education. Each of those groups will select their own representatives. The remaining six members will be selected by CORE, and will represent several groups: English-language learners, special education students, civil rights, and academic researchers, among others.

The panel will meet twice a year, Miller said, and its meetings will be subject to the California Brown Act, which guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. Panelists will review districts' own self-evaluations, as well as reviews conducted by peer districts. If a district fails to comply with the terms of the waiver, the panel can recommend to the Education Department that it be revoked.

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