Education Trust analysis of accountability plans in first-round NCLB waiver agreements shows potential for both promise, pitfalls in new federal-state partnership in K-12 education

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Onus now on leaders in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to couple strong accountability with strong action to enhance classroom instruction and improve underperforming schools, especially for struggling students

Publication date: 
February 29 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE:  From the beginning, The Education Trust has recognized both the potential promise and pitfalls of the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to grant state waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As part of our ongoing work on this front, today we are releasing deeper analyses of the accountability plans in the agreements made with the first 10 waiver states. In the coming days, we will issue further analyses of each state’s plans for educator evaluations and implementation of college and career ready standards. In addition, similar analyses of the new agreement with New Mexico are under way.

WASHINGTON (February 29, 2012) — The Education Trust continues to push Congress hard to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. NCLB has been a critical tool in the effort to raise achievement and close gaps, but it was never perfect and parts of the law have become outdated and unworkable.

Since a near-term, bi-partisan agreement on a new and improved law seemed unlikely, we supported the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver plan, viewing it as an important next phase in the relationship between the states and the federal government. We believed waivers could spark new momentum and enable states to craft more powerful policy built on the lessons of the last decade.

Early on, however, we also recognized the potential risks waivers posed to some of the nation’s most vulnerable students. That’s why we eagerly and actively engaged at every stage of the waiver development and approval process to ensure that the opportunities for progress were maximized and the risks minimized.

The next phase of work — implementation — is no different: It holds both promise and peril for students. In an effort to facilitate the informed public engagement that will be critical to maximizing positive impact, we’ve created brief, independent summaries of each state’s approved waiver plan. The states’ official plans are scores of pages long and employ wildly different formats. In contrast, we’ve produced short summaries, arranged in a common format that should enable interested readers to get a basic understanding of how different states approached each part of the task.

The Education Trust waiver summaries cover three primary areas: Accountability Systems; Educator Evaluations, and Implementation of College and Career Ready Standards.

Today, we’re releasing the accountability summaries. Accountability is a necessary component of any improvement strategy because it sets expectations for schools and districts, provides information, and provokes action. Necessary, but — to be crystal clear — it’s also insufficient. Strong accountability must be coupled with equally strong action to enhance classroom instruction and improve underperforming schools, especially for struggling students. And state plans reflect these realities. We will release our summaries of the educator evaluation and standards implementation components of each state plan in the coming days.

It’s our hope that these summaries will help the public gain a clearer understanding of what the waiver states pledge to do in their proposals, as well as a lucid perspective on the promise and potential pitfalls of this new federal-state partnership.

A Deeper Look at Accountability

There is a wide range of thoughtfulness and boldness in the waiver plans that were approved in this first round.  All have promising aspects, and each has areas for concern. The promising aspects offer powerful precedent for future policy, while the areas of concern could result in missed opportunities or, worse, the loss of hard-won progress for students.

To highlight both areas of promise and areas of concern, we’ve reviewed each plan with an eye toward four key questions:

• Equity:  Is boosting the performance of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners, and students with disabilities a core element of the plan?

The extent to which individual group performance “counts” in the accountability system varies dramatically from state to state. Some states have prioritized improvements for underperforming groups, and their accountability systems seem likely to act as “powerful gap closers.” In other states, group performance matters less.

A noteworthy feature emerging in many of the state waiver plans is the establishment of “super groups.” This term applies to groups formed by combining some or all of the “traditional” NCLB groups, or it can define entirely new groups based not on demographics, but on performance (“bottom quartile,” for example).

One compelling reason to use super groups is to drive accountability for underperforming students into more schools. Under NCLB, schools were only accountable for the groups that had enough students to reach the state-set “n-size,” which could be 50 students or more. The problem with this approach was that many schools with heterogeneous enrollments were not held accountable for groups outside the mainstream because those subgroups were too small. The ability to form super groups is one solution to this problem.

However, the super group solution could re-introduce a problem that student disaggregation was meant to address in the first place: averages that hide more than they reveal. For example, a school in a state using super groups could make required progress by improving only the highest performing students in that group, while leaving the lowest performing students unattended; or by advancing the English-language learners, but not the students with disabilities. Wherever there are super groups, concerned citizens will want to make sure there is a strong backstop that assures action when schools are not meeting targets for any group of students for more than a year.

• Coherence: Does the plan ensure that policymakers, educators, and students will all pull in the same, clearly defined direction?

States started at a handicap here. The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines required the states to set ambitious goals for raising achievement and closing gaps, but allowed — and some might say encouraged — a system of school categorization that was not driven by performance against these goals.

Some states negotiated this disconnect successfully, while others stumbled. The latter may have specific goals for improving overall and group performance, for example, but school ratings may be determined on very different criteria.  Similarly, the criteria for getting into a school-ratings category may be inconsistent with the criteria to get out of it.  By contrast, coherent systems provide consistent signaling throughout.

• Ambition: Will meeting the performance expectations communicated in the plan result in significant improvements for all students and, perhaps more important, will it generate accelerated gains for those farthest behind?

In their waiver plans, states were invited to adopt one of two federal goals frameworks, or a “similarly ambitious” alternative of their own choosing. The first framework fixed the goal at getting all students college and career ready by 2020, requiring larger year-on-year improvements for the groups starting farther behind. The second framework — one suggested by our analysts based on deep analysis of school-level improvement rates in multiple states — aimed at halving the gaps between the current performance of individual student groups and 100 percent within six years. Again, this approach requires improvements for all students, but bigger improvements for groups starting behind.

The core idea behind this approach was to encourage states to set stretch goals that would narrow or eliminate longstanding gaps between groups. The 100 percent proficiency goal set by NCLB was often viewed as unrealistic or unattainable. Waiver states were invited to set stretch goals that their own data suggested were achievable with concerted effort.

• Action: Does the plan clearly prompt specific, appropriate and effective interventions, not just for the lowest performing schools, but also for schools serving groups of students who are struggling despite the success of other students in the school?

Under current law, the federal government prescribed a specific set of consequences for schools that did not meet their achievement targets, beginning with school choice and supplemental tutorial services, and moving through various levels of “school improvement.”  The required consequences were the same, regardless of whether a school missed one target for one group or fell horribly short for all its students.

Because many state and local leaders railed at this one-size-fits-all approach and questioned whether the federal government knew more than they did about how to improve their local schools, the waiver process invited states to replace the federally mandated consequences with a system of rewards, supports, and interventions that they believed would be more effective.

The granting of the NCLB waivers described in the summaries that follow marks a new phase in our nation’s journey toward providing a quality education for all students. Certainly, the development of these plans involved a lot of thought and a lot of work, especially by state education leaders, but the really hard work lies ahead, as state and local education leaders put into action what for most is still merely a paper plan.

As the states step up to this work, parents, journalists, advocacy organizations, and, more generally, the public need a clear sense of the new goals the states have pledged to pursue. The public also needs a firm grasp on the key strategies (along with their attendant strengths and potential pitfalls) the states have chosen to employ, especially for the students who often get ignored in school improvement efforts.  We hope these summaries are helpful, because the success of these new initiatives is terribly important to our country’s future.

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