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How Long Do Waiver States Have to Get Teacher-Evaluation Systems in Place?

How long do states with No Child Left Behind Act waivers have to get teacher-evaluation systems up and running? Maybe longer than you think.

It's no secret that teacher evaluation has been the toughest area of NCLB waiver implementation, from the get-go. And it's also no secret that the Obama administration has slowly shifted from taking a super hard line in this area to being much more flexible. (Or lax, depending on your viewpoint.)  

And now the administration has quietly allowed more than a dozen waiver states until the 2016-17 school year—Obama's very last year in office—to fully put in place teacher-evaluation systems that take student test scores into account.

The states, according to waiver-renewal letters sent this summer include: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. A couple others, including Arizona and Missouri, will get started next school year, but have until 2016-17 for full implementation

And at least two states, Arkansas and Massachusetts, have now been approved to shoot for the 2017-18 school year to get their systems fully in place, according to their renewal letters.

Federally mandated teacher evaluations through student outcomes have had a long and complicated history, which you can view in timeline form here.

The short version: Many states with waivers under the NCLB law were initially supposed to have teacher-evaluation systems that take student test scores into account up and running by the 2014-15 school year. (Those systems didn't need to be used to inform personnel decisions until later, however.)

The Obama administration was initially very firm on its timelines. It made Illinois wait for its waiver for more than a year because the state's law didn't conform to federal parameters for instance.

But, as states have struggled with the evalution systems there have also been a series of reprieves, including the tough-to-wrap-your-mind-around "waiver waivers."

Most prominently, though, last year, the department gave every state at least one more year to begin teacher evaluation through test scores. The announcement garnered some big headlines (OK, big as far as these wonky things go).

And it seemed (at least to me) that the change meant most states would generally be expected to have teacher evaluations fully in place by this coming school year, the 2015-16 school year. That way states didn't need to transition to new tests aligned to Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluations that took scores on those tests into account at exactly the same time.

Here's how U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the change in a blog post, published on the department's site:

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we'll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I'd expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems—and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well.

And here's how Deborah S. Delisle, who at the time was the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, put it in a letter to states:

The Department is offering [state education agencies] transitioning to new assessments the flexibility of additional time to incorporate student growth on State assessments for one year, during the transition to new assessments, which most States plan for 2014-2015.

She added, however, that states that needed other flexibility could ask for it.

Notice those caveats? Turns out they were key. A year after those announcements, the department seems to be willing to give states an even longer leash, up to the 2017-18 school year for at least two states, when the president will be out of office, to fully implement this tricky policy.

The good news, for anyone struggling to wrap their mind around all these twists and turns and all this confusing rhetoric? If the NCLB law is revamped this fall, as education leaders in Congress hope, none of this will matter anymore.

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