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California's CORE Districts Faltering On Key Tenets of Waiver, Ed. Dept. Says

The California districts that won a special reprieve from portions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are falling short on several key pieces of their waiver agreement, and, in some areas, made major changes to their plan without first getting permission from the U.S. Department of Education.

In an undated monitoring report posted on the website of the California Office to Reform Education (or CORE, as the coalition of districts is called), Education Department officials flag several problems with the districts' adherence to the first-of-its-kind waiver. They include delays and changes to how the districts are dealing with their lowest-achieving schools. (I searched for the monitoring report on ed.gov, and it's either buried somewhere or not yet published.)

The CORE districts that won the waiver late last summer are Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sanger, San Francisco, and Santa Ana. Sacramento was also part of the original group, but withdrew from participation earlier this spring over deep divisions that the waiver had caused between the district and its teachers' union.

Earlier this month, CORE requested an extension of the one-year reprieve for the seven remaining districts, and along with it, a delayed timeline for fully implementing teacher-evaluation systems (which will be unique to each district but with shared guidelines) by the 2016-17 school year. That timeline is outside what the Education Department has greenlighted for any state waiver recipient, with the exception of Illinois, where the waiver was hung up on the issue for over a year. 

As part of its review of the CORE waiver, Education Department officials visited four of the eight districts in February: Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento (which dropped out two months later).

Among the issues flagged by the monitors:

  • The fact that not all CORE districts are submitting local data to an agreed-upon third-party vendor that in turn, was to aggregate and provide regular reports;
  • Concerns over some districts' lack of transparency with respect to the requirements of participating in the CORE waiver (a problem, as already noted, in Sacramento and also in Fresno);
  • A too-weak district-to-district review process, which is meant to be a key part of ensuring that districts adhere to the principles in the waiver;
  • A CORE school-rating system, which was to heavily weigh nonacademic factors as part of a school's grade, that has yet to be fully developed;
  • Districts falling short on pledges to pair the most-struggling schools with coaching teams from high-performing schools with similar demographics; and
  • Major changes to strategies (without prior approval) for improving "focus" schools that struggle with closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

The CORE waiver monitoring report comes less than a year after the districts got their relief from some mandates of the NCLB law, so it's not too surprising that the districts, like many states with waivers, are struggling to implement all that was promised in the original plan. In its recent request for an extension of the waiver, the CORE districts outline how they are responding to several of the issues raised in the monitoring report.

There have also been some significant leadership changes in some of the districts that likely have had some impact on waiver implementation, or, in the case of Sacramento, participation. Both Oakland and Sacramento have new superintendents since the waiver was granted, and Los Angeles Unified lost its second-in-command, Jaime Aquino, who was deputy superintendent.

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