The U.S. Department of Education told state chiefs Friday that it will grant some states extensions on their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, even if their teacher-evaluation systems aren't yet completely up to snuff. The plan, which is still being developed, would give states that are already making progress on implementing teacher-evaluation systems that conform to the department's principles extra time to tweak and refine those systems.
Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, delivered the news in an email to state chiefs Friday. Under the plan, some states would essentially be given extensions based on their progress on two of the three big areas of waiver implementation (standards and assessments, and turnarounds). Those states' teacher-evaluation plans would then be reviewed separately—waiver extensions wouldn't be held up because of them.
But importantly, the flexibility wouldn't apply to states that have laws on the books that prohibit them from putting in place systems that meet the administration's parameters.
"You have demonstrated tremendous leadership on behalf of your students by moving forward on this work, and we will continue to look for ways to recognize and reward these efforts," Delisle wrote to the states. "At the same time, we recognize that some states also need to make targeted adjustments as they fully implement these systems, while not stopping progress or retreating on the goal of fully implementing teacher and leader evaluation and support systems." (Scroll down to the end of this post for the full email.)
At the same time, if a state isn't seeking to change its teacher-evaluation system substantially, the department will review all three components of its waiver extension request at once, Deslisle wrote.
But big questions loom. For instance, it wasn't immediately clear what the impact of the decision would be on the proposed timeline for fully implementing teacher-evaluation systems. That's supposed to happen next school year. In the letter, Delisle said she and her team will be working with states to figure out how to proceed.
"Our goal is to secure your input on how the department can best support the work you are doing to fully implement these systems," the email said.
The announcement would seem to represent something of a pivot for the department, which has held the line on teacher evaluation more firmly than on any other aspect of waiver implementation. The department went so far as to put four states on high-risk status because of the issue, and recently pulled Washington state's waiver because the state's teacher-evaluation system did not take student achievement on state assessments into account.
At the same time, however, this is hardly the first time the department has made adjustments to the teacher-evaluation portion of the waivers. Last year, the administration gave states a chance to apply for so-called "waiver waivers," which offered states extra time to get begin using the new systems to inform personnel decisions, such as hiring and firing. And the department was initially planning to make teacher equity a key feature of waiver renewal, but then backed off that plan.
The waiver may help some states hang onto their flexibility, but it will do nothing for Washington state. A spokeswoman for the Evergreen State's education department, Kristen Jaudon, told my colleague Andrew Ujifusa the letter "does not crack open the waiver door" for the state. Why? Jaudon said the letter from Delisle can help states struggling with timelines. But it's no help at all to states that have laws making it clear districts don't have to use state test scores in evaluations. (Interestingly, Jaudon said Washington state Superintendent Randy Dorn got a phone call about the letter Thursday, even though Delisle officially sent it to state chiefs Friday.) Michigan is in a similar position.
"The states that are having problems with implementing teacher evaluation programs are mostly encountering resistance with timelines, not with laws that remove the requirement that state test scores be used in teacher evaluations," Jaudon wrote in an email.
Crafting evaluation systems based on student outcomes has been the trickiest piece of the waiver process. Teacher-evaluation plans in at least 11 states are still under review at the department.
So what's the reaction? The decision was greeted warmly by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which will be working with the department to gather states' input on the policy shift.
"They're making the right move here," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO. "I would say there's a pretty clear distinction between not doing [teacher evaluation] at all and taking more time to do it. ... At the same time, there are states that have hit their timelines, and we need to acknowledge that and reward them for doing so."
The department has a number of potential rewards in its tool box, including allowing states who are on track when it comes to teacher evaluation more flexibility with federal funds for teacher training, or even renewing their waivers automatically.
And the nation's largest teachers' union is pretty happy, too. "We applaud the Department of Education for listening to educators across the country and for making changes that should allow the waiver renewal process to move forward more quickly for some states," said the union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, in a statement. "We hope this move toward flexibility in the area of teacher evaluation is a harbinger of additional flexibility on all three principles in the waiver programs. It is important that implementation of new standards, student and educator supports and assessments is done well, and states and districts should be given the needed time and tools to ensure student success."
The Education Trust, a Washington based organization that advocates for disadvantaged kids, and has criticized the department for some of its waiver implementation moves, was also on board with the decision. "We're actually encouraged that they are having conversations with states about how best to ensure that rigorous evaluation measures are used for educator improvement, and personnel decisions take hold and take root," said Daria Hall, the organization's director of K-12 policy.
But Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, said the finer details are really going to matter here. She noted that Delisle said in her letter that states may make "targeted substantive changes" to their plans. But it's still unclear exactly what that means.
"Is it just the timeline" for implementation, she wondered. "How far can states push?" She noted that many states did a test run of their teacher evaluation plans this year and found things that needed to be tweaked and changed.
"On the one hand, it makes complete sense that if you're piloting a system and you see that there need to be adjustments to that system, you should make them," she said. "On the other hand, I don't think you can deny that this will enable some states to keep from making tough reforms."
Read the full email below:
Dear Chief State School Officer,
Teacher and leader evaluation and support systems are a critical component of State-led reform efforts and can recognize excellent teachers and provide helpful feedback from multiple measures that educators could use to put every student on the path to success. You have demonstrated tremendous leadership on behalf of your students by moving forward on this work, and we will continue to look for ways to recognize and reward these efforts. At the same time, we recognize that some States also need to make targeted adjustments as they fully implement these systems, while not stopping progress or retreating on the goal of fully implementing teacher and leader evaluation and support systems.
The Department is always trying to improve the processes by which we interact with States in the important and complex work that you each undertake every day. In the coming days my team and I will be engaging in conversations with you about the work you have undertaken in the area of teacher and leader evaluation and support systems. Our goal is to secure your input on how the Department can best support the work you are doing to fully implement these systems. For states that have moved forward on fully implementing educator evaluation and support systems, we are interested in input from you and your teams to identify any additional flexibilities or ways the Department can further support your work and your leadership.
Additionally, the Department is committed to keeping the ESEA flexibility extension process moving smoothly and making timely decisions about extension requests while we seek your input. As a result, for States that have the authority to ensure that all districts implement teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that meet ESEA flexibility requirements, but are proposing targeted substantive changes to their implementation plans for Principle 3 of ESEA flexibility (teacher and principal evaluation and support systems), the Department will make extension decisions based on their submissions for Principles 1 and 2 and will review Principle 3 amendments separately. For States with extension requests that include no changes or only technical changes to Principle 3, the Department will review their requests in their entirety across all three principles.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts on ways for us to meet our ultimate goal of ensuring that all teachers and principals receive robust, timely, and constructive information and support that informs instruction for students. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will be working with you and your staff to set up calls to help the Department gather your input.
Thanks for your continued focus on enhancing instruction for all students. My team and I look forward to speaking with you soon and welcome your specific ideas. Thanks for all you do to assist students and to support educators in their work.
Deborah S. Delisle