ACSA: Waiver too weak as isAdministrators offer ways to strengthen it
The organization representing state school administrators says that if California wants its request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law to be taken seriously, then the State Board should give Secretary of Education Arne Duncan more of what he is demanding.
The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) is suggesting several amendments that it says would strengthen a waiver request that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s staff at the state Department of Education is recommending to the State Board. Chief among the changes would be a pledge to halve the number of students who are not proficient in math and English language arts over the next six years.
ACSA focused on the area of school accountability, a key part of the waiver proposals. “We believe however, the recommended proposal (by CDE) is too weak for serious consideration by federal officials,” ACSA President Alice Petrossian wrote in a letter last week to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “The CDE proposal offers no real alternative to improving student achievement. While it may be appealing to have unfettered relief we believe it’s very unrealistic.” The State Board will vote on the waiver proposal on Wednesday.
Duncan is offering to give states flexibility from NCLB spending dictates and temporary relief from its severest penalties if they meet four broad conditions he has set. They include creating improvement plans for districts with the biggest achievement gaps and adopting statewide teacher and principal evaluation systems that take student results on standardized tests into consideration.
Eleven states already have received the two-year waivers, which take effect this fall, and 26 others applied by the second-round deadline last week. California still can apply for a third round by Sept. 1, but it would take effect in 2013-14.
From the start, Torlakson has viewed Duncan’s offer as stretching his authority to grant waivers from NCLB – a point highly debated in Washington. He called Duncan’s offer “not so much a waiver as a substitution for a new set of requirements and a new set of challenges.” And he has cited the multibillion-dollar costs of implementing Common Core standards, another condition for the waiver, and uncertainty that the Legislature would act on teacher evaluations this year as reasons the state can’t meet Duncan’s demands.
Instead, Torlakson is recommending that Duncan be asked to use his overall waiver authority to give California immediate, two-year relief: flexibility for districts to use $353 million in Title I dollars and suspension of sanctions against schools deemed failing under NCLB.
ACSA: Commit to making progress
Last fall, when Duncan first announced the waiver idea, ACSA’s board recommended that the state pursue it. ACSA still prefers that option, said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s lobbyist, but it can support a request for a general NCLB waiver, as the state Department of Education is proposing, if it is strengthened.
One of district superintendents’ chief complaints about NCLB is that schools are labeled as failures under the federal measures even though they meet growth targets under the state’s performance index.
That wouldn’t change under CDE’s proposal. Although the sanctions would be suspended for two years, NCLB’s chief – and generally scorned – requirement, that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014, would remain in effect. So over the next two years, hundreds, if not thousands, of additional schools would be given the scarlet “F” even if, for now, there would be no additional consequences.
Instead, ACSA is proposing that California agree to Duncan’s requirement that districts commit to reduce the proportion of remaining non-proficient students by 50 percent over six years. Consistent with that, the state would raise the target API score for schools and districts, now 800, to 838 (halfway to 875, signifying that all students, on average, would be at grade level).
ACSA is also suggesting that CDE do something else that Duncan is requiring: identify the 15 percent of schools that are either the worst-performing schools or those with the biggest achievement gaps and require that districts create plans to turn them around. “This commitment is in keeping with ACSA’s position that federal and state accountability should be focused on the lowest performing schools while higher performing schools are more autonomous,” Petrossian’s letter said.
CDE’s waiver plan doesn’t deal with the issue of teacher and principal evaluations. Its position is that it’s the Legislature’s prerogative to change current law.
ACSA isn’t suggesting that the state commit to mandating a new evaluation system that requires some use of student achievement as a measure. But, in a nod to Duncan, it does recommend that the state at least “commit to developing ‘voluntary’ state guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations” while the Legislature sorts through changes in the law.
“While not perfect, ACSA’s amendments make for a stronger, more viable plan,” Petrossian wrote. “We would rather be rejected making our best effort then go through an exercise in futility.”
Along with ACSA, superintendents of the seven districts that led the state’s application for Race to the Top money also have called for pursuing Duncan’s waiver. The districts, which include Los Angeles Unified, Fresno Unified, and Sacramento City Unified, have continued their work through a nonprofit, the California Office to Reform Education. Its executive director, Rick Miller, is a former deputy state superintendent.
“We support all ideas for needed flexibility for schools failing under No Child Left Behind,” Miller told me this week. “We’re in favor of a general waiver if we can get relief, but I have grave doubts whether it (CDE’s proposal before the State Board) will be acceptable to the feds.”
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