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Arizona's NCLB Waiver in Jeopardy Over Teacher Evaluations

UPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education is putting Arizona on notice that it might revoke its No Child Left Behind Act waiver over problems having to do with the state's teacher-evaluation system.

And, making matters worse, the state is still in hot water over plans to make graduation rates count for 15 percent of a high school's rating, versus 20 percent (what federal officials want). To be clear, the state is on "high-risk status"—which is more of an official steppingstone toward losing a waiver—because of those problems.

Both issues were highlighted in a previous Education Week story. In that story, state schools' chief John Huppenthal was highly critical of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's promise of flexibility, which comes with a slew of requirements favored by the Obama administration. Those requirements include what some view as prescriptive solutions for school turnarounds and teacher-evaluation systems in particular. "We just think the federal department of education needs to up its game in terms of how this is all going to work to improve education," Huppenthal said at the time.

In a letter sent Monday, shown at the bottom of this post, federal officials specifically took issue with Arizona's lack of an approved definition of "student growth" in terms of how student test-score changes will be incorporated into teacher evaluations. However, the department is still granting Arizona another year of flexibility, through the current 2013-14 school year. (So until now, apparently, the state had been running things on an expired waiver.)

The letter outlines a slew of requirements Arizona must meet if it wants to keep its waiver for the 2014-15 school year, including submitting a plan for fixing teacher-evaluation problems within 60 days. 

[UPDATE 11/27, 4:07 P.M.]: In an interview today, Huppenthal said he isn't going to fight his new "high-risk status," but also thinks he can meet federal officials' requirements without giving in.

He said in his state, which puts a high value on local control, many school districts already have sophisticated teacher-evaluation systems that provide regular feedback to teachers on their "value added".

"We realize there are ways to get around this and still keep local control for those school districts," he said. "We don't want to substitute a bad system for a very good system."

So the challenge for Huppenthal is to find a way to assuage federal officials without making new work for educators in his state. "In order to get the waiver we want to avoid any new regulatory burden, and we think we can get there," he said.

Also on Monday, the department rejected requests by Oregon and Kansas to have their "high-risk" labels removed. Those two states, plus Washington state, were already in trouble over teacher-evaluation implementation.
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