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Deb Delisle on the Promise and Pitfalls of NCLB Waivers

Waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act have been available to states for more than two years now, and the U.S. Department of Education is getting ready to roll out criteria for renewals that will let states hang on to their waivers for a longer period. While nearly every state seems to like its waiver—most applied for extensions—the waivers also have been the subject of intense criticism from civil rights groups and members on both sides of the congressional aisle. (Much more in this story on where we stand with NCLB waivers.)

I recently chatted with Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, who has a huge hand in overseeing implementation of waivers under the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Delisle, for the record, has done pretty much every job in K-12. She's been a teacher, a district superintendent, a state chief, and now is in the top echelon of the federal department. (More on Delisle here.)

Here's what she had to say when I asked her about waivers:

What's your overall impression of the waivers? How do you think you'd view them if you were still Ohio's state chief?

In answering, Delisle, who started at the department just as waivers were being rolled out, said she's been "struck by the state chiefs who are really owning their systems. ... Under NCLB that wasn't ever the case. We were always resisting everything."

The waivers were supposed to set up a new partnership between states and federal government. How is that working so far?

The new, more collaborative relationship is still evolving, but it's on the right track, Delisle said. "I know there are states who accuse us of no flexibility in flexibility," she said. "But there still had to be a framework around which we were working and establishing baselines, for example, of work.

And the situation looks different state by state. "Some states have been better able to access us [as a partner] to accept us that way, while other states are still, like, one eyebrow raised, like, 'Really so you want us to come up with the solution?'" Delisle said. "And then others, who are probably in the very small minority, would just rather have a formula, 'Just give it to us, just tell us what to do, and then we'll go ahead and do it.'"

A common criticism is that the waivers are incomprehensible as a group. There's no way to compare one system to another and see the impact on particular subgroups, for instance. Is that fair?

"I don't accept that," Delisle said. "I have folks who know each and every state and could describe the accountability system and how they do it. I'm not going to suppose that everybody understands them down to a weedy level, but I think if people can start to view them somewhat in isolation ... so what's Kentucky doing that's right for Kentucky," then they can figure out the bigger picture from there, she said. Analysts should be asking themselves questions like, "Are the majority of states really focusing in a very strategic kind of way for the lowest-performing schools, for example?" (Politics K-12 aside: The department's own monitoring reports paint a pretty mixed picture of how states are doing when it comes to turnarounds.)

"I recognize the difficulty in comparing [one waiver plan to another], but that's what we tried to do with NCLB, and it just really didn't work," Delisle said.

Some people have questioned whether the department, which has weathered across-the-board budget cuts and a government shutdown, really has the capacity to understand and monitor each of these systems in depth. What's your take on that?

 "It's true that it's a massive undertaking. And, obviously we had to build the capacity for it. I would say we're getting better every day," she told me. "I think the big advantage has been that we have moved to a situation of a team working with a state and within that team there's a lead on the state," as opposed to the department's previous monitoring process.

The administration keeps changing the NCLB waiver policy, particularly when it comes to teacher evaluation. Is that natural course correction, or have there just been a number of unanticipated problems?

"Change is hard, and there's no doubt flexibility has been an important change from NCLB and moving from that one-size-fits-all to a system, which is more operational and better for individual states," Delisle said. "I think that causes a natural sort of evolution in any process. So I think what's really important as you see the twists and turns [is to keep in mind that] we are actually listening to states, we are responding to them."

Do you think the Obama administration tried to do too much at once by asking states to move on new standards, new tests, and new evaluations at the same time?

"I think we can always step back and do hindsight 20-20 and reflect on perhaps what could have been," Delisle said. But she'd rather look forward. "We tried cookie-cutter under NCLB, and we know where that gets our states, school, and kids. So we know that working with states to implement varying plans is very complicated, but I think that's it's better for all involved ... We are moving from an input system to an outcome-based system. We're very interested in what outcomes we're going to get for kids."

Your enforcement of the teacher-evaluation portion of waivers has been really stringent in some ways, but the administration has been less forceful when it comes to standards and assessments. So far no state has lost its waiver for dropping out of the one of the two assessment consortia, for example. That's kind of curious because standards and assessments are at the heart of NCLB. Teacher evaluation isn't. Can you explain?

"The common core is not what's embedded in [waiver principles]. What's embedded is college and career-ready standards," Delisle said. She noted that the department has required states that ditch the common core to get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards will get students ready for college and the workplace. "We haven't had states that have ended up with real significant issues enough to cause the kinds of concerns that ... the teacher- and principal-evaluation systems have."

You keep talking about outcomes, but, in part because of changes in assessments, we're not going to see any comprehensive data on student outcomes, including for subgroup students, possibly until after the Obama administration has left office. That's frustrated some civil rights organizations that are worried that the waivers have hurt poor and minority students. Do you think the waivers mask the performance of subgroup kids?

"I don't think it's a fair assessment," Delisle said. "Some of the criticism that I've heard is that this is going to happen, when we don't in fact know if it's going to happen." She said that the department has asked states to model their systems to show how they will affect subgroup students. And she said that she hopes any reauthorization of NCLB will continue to break out student data so that educators can see how poor and minority students are faring compared to their peers.  

I've heard that you're working on state profiles of how the waivers are impacting different groups of students. Do you know when those will be made publicly available?

"I don't," Delisle told me. She said the department is just starting to compare its data with state data. "We're just at the very beginning stages of looking at subgroups of students, what information is coming in. " And for the 2013-14 school year, "One of the things we have to keep in mind is that many states gave the [Common Core-aligned] field test, and we don't want to draw conclusions from a field test because that's really unfair to distinguish one state from another or one group of students from another." (Politics K-12 aside: Some civil rights organizations would say that's exactly why the department should not have allowed states to use the field tests to substitute for regular state assessments. We can't really get a handle on how different subgroups of students are doing if we don't compare apples to apples, they say.)

Some folks say the Obama administration isn't doing nearly enough to push forward on NCLB reauthorization because you all are hoping waivers will take root in state policy before the law changes. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

"I don't feel that at all," she said. "I feel like ever since I've come to the department the secretary has certainly wanted ESEA reauthorization."

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