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Arne Duncan Attaches More Strings to NCLB Waiver Renewals

Two years after offering states waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education is expecting states to up the ante on teacher quality if they want another two years of flexibility.

Barring a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of the law, this waiver renewal process marks the last opportunity for the Obama administration to put its stamp on the ESEA and shape a future law.

To get a two-year extension of their waivers, states must reaffirm their commitment to college- and career-ready standards and tests, and to implementing differentiated accountability systems that focus on closing achievement gaps, according to new state guidance issued today.

States getting a waiver renewal must also continue implementing new teacher-evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year—but the waiver renewals would take these requirements a step further. States must, by October 2015, use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their peers. This issue of teacher distribution is a very important one to civil rights groups.

What's more, under a renewal, states and districts must improve the use of Title II funds for professional development, with a requirement that districts spend the money on "evidence-based" programs and link them to new college- and career-ready standards. (Importantly, "evidence-based" is not defined.)

So far, 41 states, the District of Columbia, and a group of eight districts in California have flexibility waivers under NCLB. Thirty-five of them were approved in the first two rounds, which means their waivers expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year. These 35 will be the first to go through the renewal process.

Renewal applications will be accepted in three phases, beginning Jan. 2 and ending Feb. 21. The renewal applications will be judged internally, and not turned over to outside peer reviewers, department officials said on a press call today.

"We want to be sure to provide states with the flexibility they need to continue to implement their reform efforts," said Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, in the call. But, she added, "We want to ensure states continue to meet a high bar."

In addition to the new requirements on teacher quality, the waivers wade farther into one other new territory: district-level accountability. The district-role in intervening in low-performing schools has been identified as a weakness in federal frameworks, and so the waiver renewal process requires states to develop a "high-quality plan" for holding districts accountable for their efforts in turning around struggling schools.

The waiver renewal process seeks to beef up existing key areas as well:

Standards and tests—The department wants to ensure states are on track with implementing college- and career-ready standards and assessments, including backup plans for states that may have dropped out of the Common Core State Standards or common-testing consortia.

Student goalsAmid complaints that states must set "annual measurable objectives," or AMOs, for schools and districts but do little to enforce them, the guidance seeks to boost the power of the AMO. States will need to spell out exactly what their plan is for intervening in schools where subgroups of at-risk students miss those AMOs (or graduation-rate targets). These AMOs often exist outside of a state's regular school-grading or accountability systems.

Low-performing schools—Federal officials are keenly interested in states' and districts' plans for long-term interventions in "priority" schools, which are in the bottom 5 percent for student performance.

Worth noting is that federal officials are requiring states to consult with key stakeholders (such also as teacher unions) as part of the renewal process, as they did in their initial applications.

Interestingly, the guidance also reveals that the department is in the process of analyzing data in all waiver states to confirm that schools and subgroups are being properly identified and supported under state accountability systems. Those results will be used as part of the renewal process, and federal officials are saying they may make states change their accountability systems if flaws are found.

Federal officials are also forewarning that this is the only waiver renewal that will give states a free pass on student outcomes.

"After only a year and a half of implementation, it is too early to use student outcomes in making renewal decisions," the guidance reads, "however the Department anticipates that any future extension of these waivers will be outcomes-driven, based primarily on whether or not [a state] has improved student achievement and made progress towards closing achievement gaps."

But it's unclear just how much weight is behind this warning. The first round of renewals will expire at the end of the 2015-16 school year, by which time the Obama administration will be in its twilight.

Among education-policy experts, the waiver renewal process raises more questions than answers.

"After reading the guidance, it strikes me that the big question—since changes in student performance won't be considered—is how will the department determine whether each state's implementation is faithful and strong enough to warrant renewal," said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners in Washington. "The department now finds itself in a very tricky situation. Hold states' feet to the fire on rigorous implementation and run the risk of being seen as heavy-handed; allow states to slide by and raise the ire of those who say meaningful accountability has been gutted."

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation who has been closely tracking the waivers, said the department is pretty much staying the course here. "I think at the end of the day we are going to see every state get a waiver renewal," said Hyslop, noting that it's far easier for the department to effect change by working with states than by revoking their waivers.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and the Senate education committee chairman, reiterated his call to put a reauthorization of the bill on the floor of the Senate this fall. "This new phase of extending existing waiver agreements is an urgent reminder that Congress must act," he said.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called this waiver renewal process a "critical juncture."

"During the renewal process, I will continue to focus on ensuring that the core principles of equity and civil rights in education are upheld," he said. "In particular, I will be taking a close look at whether schools will be held accountable for graduating students, whether students with disabilities are taught to and assessed on the same standards as their peers, and whether schools take significant action when students are not achieving at grade level."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., wasn't happy at all. The top Republican on the Senate education committee rekindled his criticism that the Education Department is becoming a national school board. Of Duncan, he said: "He still has states over a barrel, so he's claiming even more detailed control over everything from when and how they evaluate their teachers to which schools they identify as low-performing, and he's forcing them to complete what looks like hundreds of extra pages of paperwork."

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