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Details trickling out on latest NCLB waiver bids

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week


by Michele McNeil


With the addition of three longtime holdouts to the list of states seeking flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, nearly every state has sought to design its own accountability system to replace the outdated federal law.

But the waiver applications submitted last month by Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming are by no means a sure thing.

Neither Pennsylvania nor Wyoming had released its submitted application to the public as of late last week, despite a federal requirement that states collaborate with stakeholders on their new proposed accountability systems.

And Texas submitted an application that generally addresses the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education, but omits some key promises and elements that federal officials require as a condition of receiving flexibility.

Nonetheless, "these requests reflect the desire of states to have more flexibility in implementing their locally developed ideas about how to improve education — and not be forced into a one-size-fits-all approach," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when the applications were submitted Feb. 28.

So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have secured waivers from certain provisions of the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is long overdue for a congressional rewrite.

Ten states have applications pending, while applications from Iowa and California were rejected by federal officials over problems implementing new teacher-evaluation guidelines.

North Dakota last week joined Vermont on the very short list of states that tried for waivers but withdrew their requests after it became clear that federal officials weren’t likely to accept their plans.

Only Montana and Nebraska have not tried to apply for a waiver.

Practically speaking, last month’s fourth-round application deadline might have been the last for states to apply for waivers— especially if they want relief from the law before the next school year starts. The approval process typically has taken many months.

Mr. Duncan signaled as much when he said recently that after this fourth-round application deadline had come and gone, he would consider the unusual waiver request from 10 California districts that want to design their own accountability plan and receive a special waiver from the Education Department.

The fact that Texas even applied is noteworthy, given that the Lone Star State has shunned some recent high-profile federal education initiatives and priorities. The state did not compete in any Race to the Top competition, for example, and has not adopted the federally supported Common Core State Standards.

Current law obsolete

But the current federal accountability law has become obsolete, said Texas Commissioner of Education Michael L. Williams.

"Currently, school districts across Texas are forced to operate within two, often conflicting, accountability and intervention systems while taking valuable resources and time away from focusing on improving student achievement," Mr. Williams said in a statement when the application was made. He was not available for further comment.

But the state’s application comes with a significant catch: It’s asking for flexibility under Mr. Duncan’s general waiver authority, and outside the formal, conditional process the federal department set up for states.

The formal waiver process says that in exchange for flexibility to reset its academic goals for schools, a state has to agree to a host of requirements — from identifying for interventions schools with the largest achievement gaps to creating teacher-evaluation systems tied to student academic growth and used to inform personnel decisions.

The Texas application has many of the required core components — such as adopting standards for college and career readiness (though not the Common Core), creating a differentiated accountability system, and using student growth in its teacher-evaluation system.

Missing elements

But the application appears to be missing a few elements as well, such as how its new evaluation system will be used to inform personnel decisions and exactly what its new academic goals will be for schools and individual subgroups of students.

"It’s a good starting point. But I am doubtful that the [federal] department would approve it in its current form," said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

"There are too many unanswered questions about their proposed accountability system," she said. "There would have to be a significant back and forth between Texas and the department to get it to a place where it could be approved."

The federal Education Department had no comment on Texas’ application.

Much less is known about applications from Pennsylvania and Wyoming since those states had not released to the public what they have submitted.

Wyoming education deparment spokesman Tom Lacock said his state has received an extension from federal officials to keep working on its application. The state, in particular, wants relief from the escalating student-achievement goals that will top out at 100 percent proficiency in reading and math next school year, Wyoming education officials have said.

Keystone State questions

Pennsylvania has publicized an overview of its proposed plan, which indicates that state offcials want to use a 100-point rating system for schools based on tests in reading, writing, math, and science. Schools would be rated on achievement status, growth, reducing achievement gaps, and other factors, including graduation rate.

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