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Waiver States Struggle With Priority Schools, English-Learners, Ed. Dept. Finds

The first intensive federal monitoring of No Child Left Behind Act waivers shows states struggling to intervene in schools with the biggest achievement gaps, to ensure that the worst schools implement the right improvement strategies, and to help English-learners adjust to new standards.

The U.S. Department of Education released reports for six states on Monday, showing varied degrees of success—and problems—as states adjust to a new accountability system that puts them largely in the driver's seat. 

Mississippi and Idaho seemed to have the biggest problems, the reports showed.

The remaining states' reports should be out over the next four to six weeks. Federal officials visited 12 of the 35 states that were monitored in this round; the rest of the states were handled over the phone.

This is the second round of federal monitoring, called "Part B," that's supposed to look more intensively into how states are implementing their waiver plans and closely examine any issues federal officials are worried about.

The first-round, Part A monitoring done in 2012, was fairly basic, involving phone calls and a checklist of questions. Those included whether states were publishing their list of low-performing priority and focus schools, and what strategies states are using to intervene in schools with large achievement gaps. Each state's Part A monitoring report can be found on the department's interactive waiver map.

However, in that first round, the Education Department did find some red flags in several states, such as a few that may not have been stressing graduation rates enough in high school accountability.  Four states are on high-risk status and in danger of losing their waivers over problems that mostly involve teacher-evaluation implemention woes: Oregon, Washington, Kansas, and Arizona.

The states in this latest, Part B round of monitoring can be considered fairly representative of the problems likely to be uncovered in other states.

Connecticut: Although federal officials praised some elements of the state's turnaround efforts, the report criticizes the state for not meeting expectations for its lowest-performing priority schools, which are apparently not in compliance with the department's School Improvement Grant program. In terms of how to strengthen implementation, federal officials want the state to monitor professional development and tests for English-learners. They're also worried about the state's plan to not pilot all aspects of its new teacher-evaluation system, including its student-growth measure, for all grades and all subjects.

Colorado: Federal officials praised the state for its school- and district-level improvement plans, but said state officials need to improve how those plans are used to monitor subgroup performance.

Delaware: The state is flagged for failing to have a solid plan to make sure focus schools implement interventions for their most-struggling students and for subgroups of students. Federal officials also cited the state for not requiring its schools and districts, as part of their school-improvement plans, to specifically detail how they will fix their student-performance problem spots. The state is encouraged to monitor how English-learners fare under the new system.

Idaho: Federal officials found several big problems. The state didn't properly identify its reward schools, is not ensuring all of its priority schools are implementing the federal turnaround principles, and is not requiring its focus schools to target interventions to the neediest students. Also, its school report cards don't contain all the required data.  

Mississippi: The state needs to revise its plans for how it will support teachers of English-learners, struggling learners, and students with disabilities transition to college- and career-ready standards. Also, the state has not ensured that all priority schools  and are implementing the federal turnaround principles. And finally, the state has not hired implementation specialists as promised to monitor how focus schools are dealing with large achievement gaps, so the state needs to come up with a plan to better monitor these schools.

New York: The only major red flag federal officials identified was that the state is not making sure that all priority schools are looking at whether the principal should be replaced, as federal rules require.

If these and all other NCLB waiver states want to receive a one-year extension on their flexibility, they will have to fix these problems.

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