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Second-Round Waivers Draw Mixed Review

The second round of federal waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act gave states an opportunity to spell out bold school improvement and student-achievement activities already underway, a think tank analysis finds.

The report, released today by the Center for American Progress, in Washington, dug into the batch of applications, submitted in February by 26 states and the District of Columbia.

So far, between the two rounds, 32 states and the District have been approved for flexibility. Just one state—Iowa—was turned down. And Vermont dropped out of the process altogether.

While there was lots of attention on the first round of 11 waivers—approved this winter—there hasn't been nearly as much analysis of the second batch. In examining that second round, CAP set out to illuminate ideas that were surprising and new. But the group concluded that the waivers, to a greater degree, gave states a chance to provide detail on efforts that were already in the works.

"We looked for innovation but rarely found it," said Jeremy Ayers, an author of the report. "States aren't using waivers to do something brand new, but they are using it to push forward reforms that are both promising and concerning."

Overall, states came up with interesting ideas in each of the areas they had to address to get the wiggle room (teacher quality, accountability, and standards). But even though states have plenty to brag about, there were also some across-the-board areas of concern, CAP found.

For instance, it was unclear if state interventions will really be targeted to subgroups of students such as English-language learners and students in special education who are falling behind their peers. States were also murky when it came to explaining how they'll monitor schools in the turnaround process.

And nearly all of the states didn't clearly explain how they would ensure that students in low-performing schools get access to effective teachers—which has never been considered an easy task. Some states' calculation of graduation rates also raised red flags. CAP also expressed concerns about states' plans to extend learning time.

And most states, which are still recovering from the financial crisis, didn't provide details on how they would pay for some of the school improvement steps they want to take, beyond using newly freed up federal funds from changes to the law's choice and tutoring requirements. CAP found it admirable that states are taking on reforms without new, dedicated funding.

State Chiefs' View

Kirsten Taylor, a senior program associate and resident waiver wizard at the Council of the Chief State School Officers in Washington, said you can't always tell what's happening on the ground in a state from the snapshot offered in a waiver application.

Taylor, who has spoken with state officials extensively about their waiver plans, said the documents themselves "only contain a certain amount of information. ... I know a lot of states have done more thinking about some of these issues. ... It's hard to describe an entire [accountability and school improvement system] in a waiver application."

Taylor also praised CAP for devoting much of its report to identifying strong points in the state proposals.

Rhode Island gets a shout-out for its well-articulated plan for turning around the lowest-performing schools. And Illinois—one of the few states that hasn't gotten its approval letter yet—got accolades for including English-language proficiency in its accountability system, and for its plan for so-called super-subgroups, which combines students from different populations into a single subgroup for accountability purposes. The state would only use super-subgroups if the school doesn't meet the minimum of number of students to fit into an accountability category—"n"size' in NCLB-speak.

Connecticut drew praise for its plan to pay top educators extra money to serve as improvement coaches in low-performing schools. Lots more in the actual report.

Accountability Yardsticks

The waiver process allowed states to replace the much-maligned yardstick of adequate yearly progress with a new accountability system. States could either choose to cut the achievement gap for all students, including subgroup students, in half in six years, get every student to proficiency on state tests by 2020, or come up with their own rigorous system.

CAP gave accolades to the eight second-round states that went with cutting the achievement gap in half—Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. And it gave a shout-out to the one state—Arizona—that choose to get all students to proficiency on state tests by 2020.

In other cases, though, it's less clear that states are holding themselves to lofty goals for student achievement, known as annual measurable outcomes, or AMOs.

"It is difficult to discern if states do indeed meet the high bar," CAP concluded.

But Taylor said states are going for the gold, regardless of which of the three accountability options they went with. "We think all of our states are really committed to the rigor of their accountability programs. We believe that they are being really ambitious," she said.

Rating Systems, Turnarounds

A number of states used the waiver process to come up with new rating systems for schools, CAP noted. For instance, some states are giving schools an A through F grade to reflect their progress. But in some states there isn't a clear match-up between goals and these rating systems, including Louisiana, Missouri, Oregon, and possibly Nevada, CAP found.

By contrast, Utah and North Carolina got gold stars for having rating systems that clearly lined up with their goals, CAP found.

When it comes to school turnarounds, most states said they planned to make schools do an analysis to figure out where the trouble spots are and what interventions are needed. CAP noted that some states weren't planning to designate new "priority" schools (those in the bottom 5 percent) or "focus" schools (those with big achievement gaps, for several years). For instance, Maryland, North Carolina, and Ohio would identify "priority" schools every three years. Wisconsin plans to pinpoint new priority schools every four years.

And states in general were given high marks for moving to create systems of district accountability. Twenty states choose to set goals for districts in the waivers, and 15 would require particular actions in low-performing districts. Most of the plans lacked detail in this area, though, CAP found. Three of the high-flyers on this topic, according to CAP: Connecticut, Illiniois, and New York. Oregon's district accountability plan was tougher to discern.

Going Forward

CAP has a whole slew of recommendations that the group hopes will help the process run more smoothly in the future. For one thing, it suggests the Education Department beef up its staffing and capacity to oversee waiver implementation. With the original law, the department could look at states through pretty much the same lense, said Ayers, of CAP. But, now, almost every state is taking a different tack when it comes to accountability. That requires a lot more expertise—and probably more people.

The department should also make it easier for states to learn from each other, by encouraging them to develop consortia, and by coming up with some sort of clearinghouse to keep track of the best practices, CAP recommends.

Some methodology: The CAP researchers didn't talk to state officials. Instead, they relied on the written record, including the waiver applications that states actually submitted, what was approved, and notes from the peer reviewers.

Want more? A great analysis on the second round of waiver applications by my colleague, Michele McNeil, is right here.

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