Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan holds the ultimate power in choosing which states get a No Child Left Behind waiver and which don't, a group of outside judges will wield a tremendous amount of influence in deciding states' fates.
And now, the very important peer review guidebook is out from the department, which issues instructions to the judges as they evaluate each state's waiver plan. This document outlines (almost) exactly what states have to do to win the judges over and get coveted flexibility under NCLB.
The judges have not been selected yet, and it's unclear how many will be needed and if their names will be made public before the judging starts. (If you'll remember, in Race to the Top, their identities were kept secret until after the winners were announced by the department, they said, to prevent undue influence.)
In the guidance, there are a lot of clear-cut, yes or no questions that will be easy for the judges to answer: Is the state part of the Common Core or has its university system certified that its standards are college- and career-ready? Does a state's school turnaround strategy include a provision for additional student learning time? Did a state attach its guidelines for its teacher and principal evaluation systems?
But then come the more complicated, nuanced, and even controversial decisions and judgments peer reviewers will have to make.
Overall, peer reviewers for the waiver package will be deciding whether a plan is "high-quality," and "comprehensive and coherent." They will also be looking for whether the plan will increase the quality of instruction and improve student achievement.
The judges also will examine whether the state "meaningfully" engaged and solicited input from teachers and their representatives. More importantly, the judges will be told to ask: Will implementation be successful because of the input and "commitment" of teachers and their representatives? Commitment seems like a pretty strong word, and seems akin to the buy-in the department stressed as part of Race to the Top.
Then, the peer reviewers will drill down and focus on the three main commitments states have to make to get more freedom under NCLB.
On adopting college and career ready standards
Judges will ask: Is there a plan to provide professional development to teachers and principals? Will the state disseminate high-quality instructional materials to accompany the new standards? Is the state planning to increase access to college-level courses, dual-enrollment courses, and other accelerated learning opportunities? Is the state going to work with colleges of education to better prepare teachers for the new standards?
On creating a differentiated accountability system
Are the state's new proficiency targets ambitious but achievable given the state's existing proficiency rates? In identifying rewards for successful schools, has the state made the case that the rewards will actually be meaningful and worthwhile to schools? For the "focus schools" (those that aren't in the bottom 5 percent, but are within another 10 percent of the state's most-troubled schools), has the state justified that the interventions selected will actually increase student achievement? Has the state outlined a rigorous review process for outside providers who will help with school turnaround work?
On adopting guidelines to improve teacher and principal effectiveness
Is student growth a significant enough part of the new evaluation system to differentiate among teachers who have made "significantly different contributions" (emphasis added) to student growth or closing achievement gaps? Will evaluations be frequent enough? Is there a plan for differentiated professional development based on evaluations? Will the state's plan ensure that local school districts will actually be able to put these new evaluation systems into place by 2013-14 (as a pilot), and 2014-15 (full implementation)?
What's missing? The guidance offers zero help to peer reviewers (or states) as to what it means for a state to have to use its new evaluation system to "inform personnel decisions." So, what does that mean? Can you give the poorly performing teachers lunch duty, and does that count? Will you need to hire and fire based on the evaluations? This is a huge question mark.
The Politics K-12 initial takeaway: The extensive number of questions in the Common Core section makes it clear that the department sees implementing standards as a huge challenge. There seems to be a lot of room for interpretation, especially in the teacher evaluation section, and in deciding whether state-designed interventions in low-performing schools are appropriate. If it wasn't clear before, it is now: The people chosen to be peer reviewers—their backgrounds, their ideologies, their employers—will matter greatly.