The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) is now one step closer to becoming the first group of school districts to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Last week, the nine CORE districts received feedback from the Department of Education after their official peer review. Moving the application to peer review sent a clear signal that the Department was considering the request seriously; remember, California’s state-level request was denied prior to the review stage.
CORE chose not to release specific comments from the peer review until their districts have addressed any concerns in a revised proposal. According to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, a spokeswoman for CORE explained: "As you can imagine, the parties who are opposing district-level waivers are looking for any opportunity to criticize, and we worry that if we don't release the peer review and our responsive update at the same time we will face a 'death by a thousand paper cuts' situation."
But CORE did release a summary of the reviewers’ concerns. Reviewers clearly had questions about how additional districts could join CORE and begin implementing the waiver with, or without, further involvement from the Department. And they also requested more details across all three flexibility principles: standards and assessments, accountability and school improvement, and instruction and leadership.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I have several questions about the viability of district-level flexibility when waivers (and NCLB, for that matter) were designed to work through state-level policy. And my objections seem rather tame compared to those coming from some civil rights organizations, state leaders, lawmakers, and policy wonks. Given the number of organizations and leaders speaking out against district waivers, why does Department continue to press on? Despite my own hesitancy to embrace its plan, here is the best case I can muster in support of the CORE proposal.
Size matters. CORE’s waiver is under consideration, in part, because these districts represent over a million students, in one of the nation’s largest states. In fact, CORE serves more students than 24 of the 34 approved waiver states. Frankly, if nine small districts in Montana had applied, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation. Further, CORE’s districts are well ahead of their state, enacting reforms the Department would like to see across California, including longitudinal data systems, Common Core implementation, and teacher evaluation. Rewarding these districts would send a strong signal to the state of California about its own policy choices.
Promoting Innovation. Despite cries for “multiple measures” and less emphasis on testing, most states didn’t use their waivers to experiment much with accountability. Instead, states continued to rely on math and reading proficiency levels to identify priority and focus schools. CORE took the opposite approach. The districts proposed to use tests from schools’ highest grade level only for accountability, While peer reviewers nixed this idea, CORE’s plan still broadens the scope of accountability by including social/emotional and school climate domains alongside academics. In addition to proficiency, growth, and graduation rates, CORE’s accountability system will include: chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions, non-cognitive skills, student and parent perception surveys, special education identification, and redesignation for English language learners. These measures will provide a more holistic picture of students’ performance for educators, parents, and policymakers. If the Department is seeking to reward innovation via waivers, the CORE request is more inventive than any I’ve seen.
The problem with being creative, however, is that CORE can offer few details about how it will work. And based on reports of the reviewers’ comments, I suspect they want these details too. How will CORE measure non-cognitive skills? Who will design the surveys? What annual performance targets will be set in each domain, and will each carry the same weight? How will these targets be used to identify priority, focus, and reward schools? According to CORE’s request, these questions may not be answered until the 2015-16 school year. Given this timeline, does CORE merit flexibility now?
All Improvement is Local. CORE’s proposal hinges on unprecedented cooperation between districts. While other waivers rely on capacity provided by states, CORE does not have that luxury. Instead, CORE districts must agree to develop and share Common Core-aligned performance tasks and assessments, report common measures to a CORE data system, hold each other’s schools accountable for meeting performance targets, and use individual schools’ expertise as a primary tool for turnaround, pairing high-achieving schools with low-performing ones for coaching.
In some ways this could be a strength. School and district staff may have more credibility and expertise than state officials, far removed from the local context, in leading turnaround efforts and developing instructional resources or professional development. Additionally, given the size of CORE, they have greater capacity than many state education agencies. However, districts don’t have a stellar record of holding all schools and students to rigorous standards and providing meaningful accountability, and they certainly don’t have as many policy tools to wield as a state education agency.
The bottom line is that both districts and states have a role to play in implementing NCLB flexibility and improving the quality of teaching and learning. Many states have recognized this in their waivers by relying more heavily on districts’ strengths and capabilities to improve schools and support teachers. The question is whether CORE’s plan can work without a strong state role at all. I’m still not sold.