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Arne Duncan Allows Waiver States Extra Time On Teacher Evaluation

UPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education will allow some states that have gotten waivers from pieces of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to postpone using student growth on state tests as a factor in personnel decisions for up to one additional year, EdWeek has learned—until the 2016-17 school year.

States would have to make their case to Duncan for the new flexibility, and the Department will approve the plans on a case-by-case basis—so no blanket waivers for everyone.

"To be very clear, this is not a pause or a moratorium," Secretary Duncan said. And he doesn't think every state will take the department up on its offer. "Some states won't seek that flexibility because they are already well ahead."

In making their case for the wiggle room, states would have to show that they have a "robust" plan in place for making sure teachers are well-versed in new standards and assessments.

Some background: In order to get flexibility from the Education Department on pieces of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the much-maligned 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency on state assessments, states had to agree to adopt rigorous standards in reading and math that prepare students for higher education and the workplace. Most states choose to do this by adopting the Common Core State Standards, which are in place in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Virginia decided to go with its own homegrown standards.

As part of the waiver process, states were expected to put in place new assessments aligned to the standards. Two consortia, with a $360 million assist from the federal government, are developing tests aligned to the common core.

The assessments are expected to be rolled out in the 2014-15 school year. In the meantime, some states are using their own common-core aligned tests. And according to their waiver plans, states are supposed to start using student growth on those assessments to make personnel decisions about teachers, like whether they get extra pay, a promotion—or get to keep their jobs. Teacher evaluation has been the trickiest piece of waiver implementation so far.

Right now, states have a range of timelines for using the assessments to inform personnel decisions. Delaware, Florida, and Rhode Island, for instance, planned to get started in the 2012-13 school year, while Louisiana, Indiana, Washington and Tennessee aimed to get going by 2013-14. Connecticut, D.C., Georgia, and others had agreed to begin in 2014-15. And other states, including Arkansas, and Colorado, were shooting for the 2015-16 school year.

The new flexibility would only apply to states whose waiver requests were approved before the summer of 2012—that's Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Who is not eligible? States whose waivers were just approved: Alaska, Hawaii and West Virginia.

And that's not all; the department is offering states flexibility to avoid "double-testing" of students, which is going to happen as states begin to test-drive the new common core aligned assessments. Under the new flexibility, any state could make a request to the Department of Education to use just one test in schools—either a field test designed to help work out the kinks in the new assessment system, or the regular state assessment. State officials pointed out that offering both tests would eat up a lot of valuable instructional time and had asked for some additional leeway, as reported in this fantastic (and prescient) story by my colleagues Michele McNeil and Catherine Gewertz.

Mixed Reaction

The decision to offer flexibility didn't come out of nowhere. Groups representing educators have expressed concerns that the department may be prodding states to move way too fast on teacher evaluation and that the added pressure on educators could hinder implementation of the common core. The Council of Chief State School Officers recently asked for flexibility in accountability systems as states transition to new standards.

And Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which called for a limited moratorium on the use of the new tests for high-stakes decisions, said she was heartened that the administration appeared to be heeding teachers' concerns.

"There is no shame to a mid-course correction when you have ambitious goals and you see you're not getting there in the time table you wanted," she told my colleague, Steve Sawchuk, of Teacher Beat fame.

The National Education Association, which has been urging some leeway when it comes to using the tests for high-stakes personnel decisions, is happy with the move, the union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, said in an interview today.

"This was the culmination of a long, long conversation," he said. "The common core standards are too important not to do this right."

Chris Minnich, the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, gave a special thumbs-up to the move to eliminate double testing. And the president of CCSSO, Mitchell Chester, said he thought the department's decision "strikes the right balance between flexibility and urgency."

But Chad Aldeman, who until last year worked on teacher evaluation policy at the Education Department, including on the waivers, said the decision has big implications for waiver renewals. The waivers are only slated to be in place for two years—then states must work with the department to extend them. All of that will happen well before this new 2016-17 deadline for flexibility.

"It was always going to be a little bit dicey holding states accountable for their plans outside the waiver timeline," said Aldeman, who is now a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. Giving states extra time on a key piece of the puzzle is only going to complicate matters ahead of renewal. "There's no real reason that the department needs to make this decision now, other than political pressure."

And at least one state chief is having none of the department's offer.

"President Obama and the education establishment have caved into union bosses' demands to roll back critical reforms," said Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi in a statement released after the department's announcement. (It's notable that Oklahoma is already waiting until the 2016-17 school year to use student growth as a factor in personnel decisions, so the state doesn't even need this flexibility.)

The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children, also has big misgivings. "The department is sending harmful mixed signals that students should meet the new standards, but it's still okay for teachers and schools to be evaluated on the old ones," the organization wrote in a statement.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, both Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee, immediately questioned the move. Both lawmakers have expressed big concerns about the waivers in the past.

"If anyone is looking for further proof that our education system is congested with federal mandates, the education secretary is now granting waivers from waivers," Alexander said. Kline, meanwhile, said in a statement that "more waivers and bureaucratic rigmarole can't address the challenges facing our nation's schools."

And a Senate GOP aide noted that California's bid for a waiver was rejected by the department because the Golden State didn't want to embrace the teacher evaluation component of the waivers.

"This is outrageous and without any intellectual coherence," a Senate GOP aide said. "States that grudgingly submitted [waivers] are now getting relief, but states that took a principled position are still screwed. Every member of the California delegation should be demanding a waiver for California overnight."

But a House Democratic aide didn't see the announcement as anything particularly earth-shattering.

"From our perspective, it fits with the broad waiver authority, so we don't see it as anything new," the Democratic aide said. "It's just kind of everyone figuring out what the transition is going to look like on assessments."

This post has been updated to include additional reaction.

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