No Child Left Behind Waivers: A First Look

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EDITOR’S NOTE: A deeper analysis of each state waiver agreement will be made available in the coming days. For Ed Trust’s official statement on the first round of No Child Left Behind waivers, announced on February 9, 2012, please visit

The Obama administration’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver plan represents an important new phase in the relationship between federal and state policymakers when it comes to raising achievement for all students and closing gaps between groups.

A review of the 10 approved waiver proposals reveals both the promise in this new relationship — and some probable pitfalls.

Context:  A New Framework for Federal-State Cooperation

Under the 1994 authorization of ESEA, states got billions of dollars in federal funds, but were allowed to decide for themselves what to do with those dollars and what kind of progress would be considered acceptable in return for that support. Concerns about the lack of results from that big taxpayer investment were foremost when it came time to reauthorize the law in 2001. As a result, the No Child Left Behind Act swung far in the opposite direction, specifying the same goals for every state, school, and student subgroup; and mandating specific consequences when those goals weren’t met.

The administration’s waiver plan strikes a balance between these two extremes. The federal government has set clear expectations for improved performance in return for federal investment in schools, and is insisting on aggressive targets for improving results among low-income students, students of color, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. Indeed, though it wasn’t mandatory, seven of the 10 states granted waivers adopted a version of The Education Trust’s “halving the gaps” model — an aggressive, but achievable, set of goals. In most cases, decisions about how to support and intervene in individual schools are left to state and local leaders.

The waiver plan reflects two other key lessons from past experience: Accountability systems alone are insufficient to produce sustained progress, and states often need the leverage provided by federal policy to put the other — often politically difficult — pieces into place. To respond to these lessons, it was critical for the administration to require states to:

•    embrace college- and career-ready standards and assessments;  

•    develop clear plans for supporting teachers as they align their teaching to the new standards;

•    and establish honest systems for the evaluation of teachers and leaders.

In each case, however, the details for fulfilling these requirements were left to the states.

Here are highlights of a few of the best ideas from the approved state plans, along with a list of some of the more worrisome proposals.

Accountability and School Improvement

•    Supports and interventions must be targeted to school need, with the most significant action occurring in schools that are low performing and cannot, or will not, improve. 

  • o    Tennessee proposes a multi-pronged set of interventions for its Priority (lowest performing) schools; the work on its state-run school turnaround district and its district-run innovation zones stands out.  
  • o    Massachusetts has a solid framework for school improvement, and the state is one of only a few requiring districts to actually demonstrate their capacity to support school-level redesign efforts before accepting school-turnaround plans.

•    Districts play a critical role in supporting school improvement, yet most state and federal accountability systems have not included them in the past.   

  • o    Colorado has set district goals that align with their school goals, and has articulated specific interventions for low-performing districts that don’t improve.
  • o    Massachusetts has taken the bold step of linking a district’s accountability designation to the status of its lowest performing school. So, districts with even one Priority school are considered Priority districts regardless of how well other schools in that district are doing.

Educator Evaluation

•    First and foremost, teacher and school leader evaluations should relate to improving teacher practice.  

  • o    Tennessee’s evaluation system prioritizes timely feedback to educators so they can immediately apply the observer feedback to their work. This system also provides real-time access to observation data so state and district leaders can immediately see where their teachers are struggling and then prioritize resources for their support and development.  
  • o    Florida also ensures that evaluations factor into educators’ professional growth by requiring the development of individualized plans for every teacher and principal based both on evaluation results and student-performance data.

•    However well they may be designed, evaluation systems are, ultimately, only as good as their ability to improve teaching quality, especially for the kids who most need strong teachers.  

  • o    Florida is the one state that took equity seriously. There, districts are prohibited from disproportionately assigning poorly performing teachers to the lowest performing schools.

Standards Implementation

•    Simply adopting new standards will not be enough; educators need user-friendly materials and high-quality professional development to help them teach to the new standards.

  • o    Georgia is providing subject- and grade-specific professional learning sessions conducted by curriculum specialists for all educators, including administrators.
  • o    Kentucky, Minnesota, and Georgia are building databases to house such online resources as instructional units, sample materials and assessments, and other instructional supports.
  • o    Kentucky and New Jersey are providing videos modeling how to teach to the new standards.

Areas of Concern

Accountability and School Improvement

Most of the approved states established a “super subgroup” in their accountability system. The performance of these groups determines Focus status (those that are lowest performing for groups or have the biggest gap), overall school classification, or both. These super subgroups take three forms:

  • o    Bottom performers. For example, in Florida, a school’s grade is partly based on the performance of the bottom 25 percent of students in the school.
  • o    Some NCLB subgroups are combined into a single group. For example, Massachusetts’ school rating is based in part on the performance of a “high-needs group” that includes low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.  
  • o    All historically underserved NCLB groups are combined into a single super group. Kentucky’s “Gap group” includes any student who is African American, Latino, low income, an English-language learner, or a student with a disability.

One compelling reason to use these super subgroups is that they drive group accountability into more schools. Under NCLB, schools were only accountable for the groups that had enough students to reach the “n-size,” sometimes 50 or more. The result is that many schools had subgroups of students, but were not accountable for them because the group was too small. The super subgroup is a way around this problem.

However, the super subgroup may end up recreating the problem that subgroup disaggregation was meant to address in the first place — that averages can hide more than they reveal. For example, can a school improve its bottom 25 percent group by moving the highest performing of those students while leaving the lowest performers in the group to stagnate? What if that means moving low-income students but ignoring students with disabilities?

To avoid this problem, systems need a strong backstop that assures action when schools are not meeting targets for a particular subgroup for more than a year. Unfortunately, the extent to which individual subgroup performance “counts” in an accountability system varies dramatically from state to state.

Although all states have now set improvement targets for individual groups of students — at times reluctantly — these goals, and the performance of individual groups, are far from prominent in the accountability system in some states.  For example:

  • o    Indiana’s subgroup goals don’t factor into the state’s A-F grading system. That system drives most interventions and determines whether schools are labeled Priority or Focus.
  • o    In Oklahoma, traditional subgroups are one of several metrics that determine whether a school receives a “plus” or “minus” designation alongside its grade, but those designations don’t drive how the state will identify struggling schools.

In addition, schools that are very low performing for individual groups cannot be allowed to continue to languish. Identifying schools for supports and interventions must be coupled with clear consequences for what happens when those schools do not improve. Yet, few states were clear about what happens to Focus schools that, year after year, continue to have low subgroup performance or big gaps between groups. This is true even in those states that established much clearer consequences for Priority schools that don’t improve.  

Educator Evaluation

•    Even a well-designed evaluation system is meaningless if the information it provides is not folded seamlessly into a district’s human capital strategy.

  • o    Yet, few states were clear about how evaluations will inform either teachers’ professional development or personnel decisions such as tenure, compensation, or dismissal.  
  • o    And very few states gave attention to ensuring equitable access to strong teachers for all groups of students.

•    Per the waiver requirements, states’ new evaluation systems must be fully implemented by 2014-15. There are substantial and critical steps required prior to this date — ensuring a strong data system that links teachers and students, reviewing and approving locally customized evaluation models, and providing ample training to evaluators and educators, among others.  Most state applications don’t inspire confidence in state capacity to ensure successful implementation of each of these pieces.

Standards Implementation

•    While most state plans include providing some of the curriculum and instructional resources teachers will need to teach to the new standards, only a handful provided any detail about critically important resources like sample high-quality lessons or ready-to-use unit and lesson plans. Even though most districts do not have the capacity to do this work, many states seem willing to leave the burden on them.

•    Assuring that teacher preparation programs are effectively training teachers to teach to the new standards is critically important.  Yet, states’ plans are vague on this issue.