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Arne Duncan's Waiver Messaging Questioned

The U.S. Department of Education had a lot of options for unveiling its plan to allow states to delay implementation of teacher-evaluation systems in light of new standards and assessments. The department could have a) quietly sent a letter to state chiefs explaining that states are eligible for this new flexibility, or b) had a big, splashy announcement with lots of media fanfare.

The administration, obviously, opted for b). And some state chiefs have found that strategy less than helpful.

"The manner in which this was executed did put the thumb on the scale in favor of delay," said New Jersey's Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf. "You've got people all across the country who are saying, 'see, even the secretary says you have to slow down.' [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] risked energizing folks who frankly have never gotten on board" with the idea of tying teacher evaluations to test scores—and those using the evaluations to decide who stays, who goes, and who gets more money, he said.

And, apparently, Cerf had a pretty good reason to worry: a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association called Duncan's extension an "offer that should not be refused" per this story in The Record (Bergen County.)

Cerf made it crystal clear he doesn't think it was the secretary's plan to hinder progress in states that are already well on their way to implementing the evaluation systems spelled out in the waivers.

"I can tell you that I've had many conversations at the top echelons of the department and their intentions were not" to weigh-in on the side of delay, he said.

"I think the secretary acted as he did for all the right reasons," he said, but added, "There was another way to message this ...First was not to message it at all."

Cerf emphasized that his state is already on track to implement its teacher-evaluation system for tenured teachers by the 2014-15 school year. And the Garden State couldn't ask for a delay—even if Cerf thought the state needed one—without violating a state law that got unanimous support in the legislature and spelled out a specific timeline for fully implementing the evaluation system.

Cerf isn't the only chief with these concerns. Florida Commissioner Tony Bennett has made it clear his state would not apply for the flexibility, and Janet Barresi, the chief in Oklahoma, fired off a statement right after the announcement, decrying the secretary for stepping on state's prerogatives.

All three chiefs are part of Chiefs for Change, the reformy group started with a big assist from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Chiefs for Change doesn't have an official position on the department's announcement.

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