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Five Key Questions About the Ed. Department's Move on NCLB Waivers

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education made a big change to the piece of No Child Left Behind waiver implementation that has tripped up states the most: teacher evaluation.

Under the plan, some states will be able to renew their waivers even if they are still seeking "substantive changes" to their teacher evaluation systems. States' waiver extensions requests will be evaluated, instead, on the basis of their performance when it comes to the other big pieces of the waiver puzzle—intervening in low-performing schools and putting in place new college- and career- ready standards and assessments. 

But there are some key caveats. First off, not every state will be eligible for the flexibility—it can only go to states who have the authority to craft waiver systems that meet the feds' parameters. And second, states aren't completely off the hook for their teacher evaluation systems, since the department will still review them. It's just that states' waiver extensions won't be held up because of pending changes to those evaluation systems. 

Sound complicated and confusing? That's because it is. And it sounds like the department is still trying to figure out exactly how all this will work—federal officials will be meeting with states in coming days to hammer out the details, according to a letter sent by Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary in charge of K-12 policy, to state chiefs on Friday. 

Here are some key questions that still need answers: 

How will this impact states whose teacher evaluation systems are already on track? The last time the department offered flexibility on teacher evaluation timelines—by allowing states to apply for extra time to tie new teacher evaluation systems to personnel decisions—the states giving the feds the biggest pushback were the ones who had already been poised to comply with the original timetable.

State chiefs, including then New Jersey chief Chris Cerf, argued that they had been able to get cooperation from districts and educators on teacher evaluation plans, in part by painting the federal government as the bad guy. They could tell local folks that if the state didn't do what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted, he would take away their waiver and districts would lose control over much needed money aimed at educating kids in poverty. That helped state chiefs gain support for politically tricky education redesign policies. 

So now that the feds are offering even more leeway when it comes to teacher evaluation, states that are already on the ball are sure to want something from the feds in exchange for their troubles. Possible rewards include more flexibility in using federal teacher quality money, or automatic waiver renewals. 

In a statement Friday accompanying the announcement, the U.S. Department of Education already singled out some states who are on track. "Many states - like D.C., Florida, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey and Tennessee - have demonstrated tremendous leadership by moving forward on this work, and we will continue to look for ways to recognize and reward these efforts," said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the department in a statement that accompanied Delisle's letter. 

Should states enshrine their teacher evaluation systems in legislation? Maybe, maybe not. The department made it clear that the newfound flexibility will do nothing to help states that don't have the authority to make the necessary changes to their teacher evaluation systems. That means that Washington state, which has had its waiver revoked, Iowa, and Michigan are likely out of luck. All three states have laws on the books that don't conform to the department's requirements for teacher evaluation. In Michigan and Washington state, for instance, districts aren't legally required to use state assessments in teacher evaluation. 

How will this impact the three states on high-risk status for teacher evaluation? Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon have all submitted tweaks to their teacher evaluation systems, with the goal of getting off high risk status. Now that the department has opened the door to way more flexibility on the issue, it would seem these states are in a good position to shed the "high risk" label, according to Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation who has closely studied the waivers.

"It sounds like the department isn't taking a hard line on [teacher evaluation] in the extension process," she said. 

What exactly will states be able to change? The department has said that the additional flexibility will give states the opportunity to make "targeted adjustments" to their systems, as long as they continue to conform to the feds' general principles. But, Hyslop and others want to know, what's the difference between a "targeted adjustment" and a ridiculously huge change? Can states make changes to timelines? Make changes to measures that help gauge the progress of educators who don't teach tested subjects? Both? Presumably, the department will answer these questions in its upcoming conversations with states.

How will this impact waivers politically? On the one hand, educators are pleased with decision. Key organizations representing practitioners—including the Council of Chief State School Officers and both national teachers' unions—immediately heralded the move.

But there's also been plenty of pushback in Congress to waivers, and this decision gives lots of heft to the argument that the the Department is pretty much making up waiver policy as it goes along. After all, there have already been a number of inconsistencies in the department's enforcement of waiver policy. And this appears to be one more. After all, the administration seems to have consistently enforced the teacher evaluation portion of waivers more stringently than anything else—putting states on high-risk status for evaluation issues, while not throwing the hammer down on states that ditched assessments linked to Common Core State Standards—than this about-face. It seems as though states, and not the federal government, are largely driving waiver policy, Hyslop said. 

Margaret Spellings, a key architect of the original NCLB law who served as secretary of education under President George W. Bush, told me two years ago that waivers would be very tough to manage and oversee.

"The waivers were a mistake," she said back in August 2012. "It's a crazy quilt of a system which I think will die [on its] own."

Was she right? The comments section is open!

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