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Race to Top, Waivers Require Follow-On Commitment, N.Y. Chief Says

The next step for states after Race to the Top and waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act is to ensure that changes dealing with teacher evaluations and school accountability are followed by professional development for teachers and ways that state leaders can introduce "best practices" to low-performing schools and districts, said New York State Commissioner of Education John B. King.

"How do we match high accountability with high support?" asked King, speaking at a July 27 event hosted by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think tank in Washington. He added that he was "worried" about other states that had not received Race to the Top grants from the U.S. Department of Education, since they could lack the resources to implement their education policy changes.

Much of the discussion focused on the NCLB waivers that 32 states and the District of Columbia have now received (three states are still waiting to hear on their waiver applications). You can read an excellent review of the report over at my colleague Alyson Klein's Politics K-12 blog.

Michael Yudin, deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said that to deal with the long and complicated waiver applications, the Education Department had to break down "silos" within its structure so that budget experts and those overseeing various programs could review the applications and provide the states strong feedback.

"It made us look at our work differently," Yudin said.

In discussing state-level reform, King also stressed the need for states to have sufficient "courage capacity" to deal with those reluctant to go along with recent changes. As an example, he cited New York's decision at the start of 2012 to withhold School Improvement Grant cash from 10 districts that had not finalized acceptable teacher-evaluation plans: "Will people in the end hold the line on tough decisions?"

In order to remove obstacles in the way of those tough decisions, King noted that he was backing legislation in New York that would allow the state education department, in a multi-step process, to remove locally-elected school boards if the department found that the board was not fulfilling its "primary" purpose of fostering student achievement. A state-appointed board would replace them.

"We're missing that tool from our toolkit," he said.

In an interview after the discussion, King acknowledged that such legislation presented political difficulties. (Not surprisingly, the New York State School Boards Association strongly opposes the bill.) But school boards in chronically struggling districts too often served as vehicles for political patronage and back-scratching, he said, rather than governing bodies that support teachers and schools effectively.

He said that there were similar concepts behind the bill his department supported and a Michigan law that would allow for emergency managers to take control of financially-troubled school districts and cities. (That Michigan rule could be challenged by a ballot initiative later this year.) School boards that did not change their approaches to the department would effectively be placed in "receivership" by the state, King said, although he added that school boards in danger of this action are those that demonstrate "decades" of chronic underperformance.

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