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NCLB Waiver States Struggle to Turn Around Low-Performing Schools

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave more than 40 states and the District of Columbia the flexibility from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, he had an inherent trade-off in mind: States would identify fewer schools for interventions than previously under NCLB, but they would engage in much deeper and more sustained turnaround work.

That hasn't proved easy. According to an Education Week analysis of U.S. Department of Education monitoring reports, states were dinged for failing to follow through on their plans for turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools and intervening in schools with persistent achievement gaps more often than for any other aspect of waiver implementation.

Overall, seventeen out of 35 waiver states for which waiver monitoring reports have been released by the Education Department were cited for not following through on their plans for fixing up "priority" schools—those bottom 5 percent of performers.

And 17 states were hit for not doing enough to help "focus" schools, which are an additional 10 percent of troubled schools, including those with persistent achievement gaps.

The Education Department also cited nine states for not doing enough to improve student achievement at other Title I schools (those that get federal money for serving poor kids), which haven't been given the "priority" or "focus" label.

None of this comes as a surprise to those who have been taking a long, hard look at waiver implementation.

"It's easy to set up accountability systems, it's easy to identify low-performing schools," said Diane Stark Renter, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, which has studied waiver implementation and turnarounds. Actually helping those schools get better "is the hard part," she said.

Another Trouble Spot: The department also found problems with state-level monitoring of district's activities related to the waivers for 15 states out of the 35. States understand that they are on the hook for holding district's feet to the fire on waiver implementation, but some of them say that's easier said than done.

"We are a minimally funded state," said Shannon Malone, the Title I director in South Dakota. She said the state education agency has just five staff able to monitor program implementation in 155 districts.

The Education Department has rhetorically played up the idea that federal monitoring is now a partnership, instead of the box-checking, compliance-driven exercise that states have chafed under for years. But state and federal officials still seem to be finding their way in that arena, Malone said.

"The language has changed, and it changed 'compliance-based' to 'outcome-based'," Malone said, "I didn't feel they were able to give us a clear definition and clear guidance on what does that really mean." Overall, though, South Dakota saw the monitoring process as fair and supportive, Malone said.

But some state feel nitpicked. Case in point: Virginia, which was chided for failing to provide appropriate supports to priority schools. The problem stemmed from the principalship at just one of the state's priority schools, according to Kathleen Smith, the state's director of the office of school improvement.

The feds require states to get rid of a school's principal if there hasn't been significant improvement, unless that person has been on the job for less than three years. The leader at this particular school had been in place for seven years, Smith said.

But Virginia couldn't remove the administrator, thanks to a state law that requires principals to be notified of their firings by June. And this school wasn't hit with the "priority" label until August, meaning it was too late to get rid of the school leader.

"It seems unfair to label the entire category as 'not meeting expectations'," because of that one instance, said Veronica Tate, the director of the Virginia's office of program administration and accountability. (By now, she and Smith said, the principal is gone and the school is in the midst of a major overhaul.) "It gives the impression that the state is not doing its due diligence in terms of working with priority schools," said Tate.

In fact, Virginia has paired each of its priority schools with a "Lead Partner," or outside organization to assist with turnaround efforts, going further than many other states to help the lowest-performing schools improve, in Tate's view.  

The Old Dominion, like 15 other states, was also cited for troubles with its school report card. Part of the problem? The state did not break out data for migrant students, who aren't considered as a separate subgroup under the state's accountability system.

But Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, wonders how useful 30 pages of data points in a school report card really are to parents.   

"I don't think anyone is saying [certain facts] aren't important," he said. "Are they elements that belong on a school report card, so that parents can get a feel of whether this school is doing a good job? Is that who we are trying to reach [with these report cards] or are we trying to meet the needs of the individual who wants every conceivable data point about a school?"

Where is implementation going well? Standards and assessments, if you judge soley by the monitoring reports. Comparitively few states—just seven out of the 34—were hit for not doing enough to put college-and-career ready standards in place, including Washington, Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, Mississippi, Missouri, and Indiana.

And only six states—Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana and Arizona—didn't meet the department's expectations when it comes to putting in place assessments linked to college and career-ready standards. And one state's assesment system is under review—Utah—whose report was just released on Friday. (It's really important to keep in mind that most of the monitoring reports are based in part on site visits conducted way back in the fall, before states including Indiana and Oklahoma ditched the Common Core standards.)

What's more, only two states—Indiana and Louisiana—were hit for not meeting expectations on parent outreach.

And every single state that has been monitored so far got a check-plus from the department for moving forward on English Language Proficiency standards and assessments. But the bar that states had to jump over to get the federal seal of approval in those areas was likely a lot lower than for turnarounds, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

"I think the way that states were being judged on meeting those standards was easier," she said. For instance, states were likely able to able to get a check the box as being on track when it comes to ELP tests if they are members of the World-Class and Instructional Design and Assessment organization, which is developing English Language proficiency tests.

"There's a distinct possibility that if you really looked under the hood there and asked more probing questions maybe more problems would be revealed," Hyslop said.

What's missing in the reports? Some analysts worry that the monitoring reports don't tell the full story, and that the department isn't asking the right questions.

"I can give you a copy of my standards, and I get a check mark; that doesn't mean I'm actually doing a strong job of implementing those standards," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children.

And it would be better to consider a state's plan for intervening in low-performing schools alongside "leading indicators" that those schools are actually getting better, like improved attendance and graduation rates, she said.

"If you've done all your turnaround principles to a T and nothing is changing for kids in those schools, I'm not okay with that," Hall said.  

Why do reports based on long-ago monitoring visits even matter at this point? In most cases, states are expected to spell out how they plan to address big concerns in their monitoring reports before their waivers can be extended for another year, a first step toward actual renewal. The department is planning to begin announcing waiver extensions this summer, which could mean any day now.

The extension process is going to be a lot more streamlined than the department had originally envisioned. Instead of taking a comprehensive look at how states are doing on all aspects of waiver implementation, the administration will only consider states' progress when it comes to intervening in low-performing schools and staying on track with standards and assessments. Teacher evaluation will be looked at separately from the extension process.

Meanwhile, the department is promising a much more stringent process next time around when states actually renew their waivers. (Yes, waiver "renewal" and waiver "extension" are seen as different animals.)

"My hope is that the renewal process that's going to happen will be a much more rigorous process than the monitoring or extension process has been," Hyslop said. "And really take stock of progress states are making, not just about their plans, but what's actually happening on the ground."

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said, "Students and educators are benefitting from states' work to improve student achievement under ESEA flexibility. We continue to work with states as they submit requests to extend ESEA flexibility through the 2014-2015 school year and will consider those requests this summer on a rolling basis."

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