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School Improvement

What to Think About the DC IMPACT Study

October 17, 2013
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Few teacher evaluation reforms have been as contentious as the IMPACT system in D.C. Public Schools. But a new study published by Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff provides the first empirical evidence that the controversial policy could be encouraging effective teachers to stay in the classroom – and improve their practice.

Dee and Wyckoff examined teachers that scored on the cusp of various IMPACT performance levels– namely, teachers just above and just below the cutoff for effective and highly effective (HE) ratings. The idea is that teachers near the cut points share similar characteristics, regardless of their final rating. By examining these teachers’ outcomes in subsequent years, researchers can isolate the effect of IMPACT’s incentives on teacher behavior. Do teachers that barely receive a HE rating fare differently than those that just missed the distinction? And do minimally effective (ME) teachers close to the effective cut point respond differently than teachers who barely cleared the effective hurdle?

Turns out, they do. The incentive structure within IMPACT had significant effects on retention and performance, particularly after the second year of implementation (2010-11) when IMPACT gained credibility. At that time, teachers with two ME ratings became eligible for termination and those with two HE ratings earned permanent salary increases, not just bonuses. Teachers that received their first ME rating after the 2010-11 year were significantly more likely to leave DCPS (over 10 percentage points) than teachers that scored just above the cut point. Further, the threat of dismissal improved the performance of ME teachers that chose to stay for the 2011-12 year – their scores improved by 12.6 IMPACT points compared to teachers that just received an effective rating, an increase of five percentile points. Similar effects were seen for teachers that could become eligible for increases in their base pay if they remained HE – their 2011-12 IMPACT scores improved by nearly 11 points compared to teachers that missed the HE cutoff, an increase of seven percentile points.

So what do these results tell us about IMPACT and teacher evaluation reform overall? Is this a moment for cautious – or all-out – optimism?

1. Evaluation systems like IMPACT don’t necessarily improve the performance of teachers across the effectiveness spectrum.  That’s because Dee and Wyckoff only examined a narrow band of DCPS teachers: those scoring right at the cut points between ratings. These teachers are the most likely to be influenced by the incentives built into IMPACT – say, when the ratings affect job security. Instead, the research demonstrates the effect of certain incentives, on a certain group of teachers. Those incentives worked –and worked well – but we still don’t know how the performance of most teachers changed in response to the new evaluation system.

2. That said, the research is rigorous, and the results are encouraging. There is evidence that the district’s teacher workforce improved overall. Some ME teachers voluntarily chose to leave DCPS, and the newly hired teachers that replaced them in the 2011-12 year had higher IMPACT scores, on average. And there is no evidence that highly effective teachers were pushed out of the system by IMPACT. Further, many ME and HE teachers tended to improve on IMPACT when they remained with DCPS.

However, more research is needed to determine what interventions were most effective in helping these teachers improve – and to determine whether other teachers (not just those near the cut points) saw similar outcomes. Evaluation systems must define what effective teaching is, and also provide the knowledge and support for teachers to meet these expectations. We know far more about identifying effective teachers than we know about what to do next.

Of course, that brings up another important caveat: improvements in performance here are measured based on changes in IMPACT scores. The authors don’t link these results to student learning explicitly – another area for future research.

3. Finally, while the results are positive and provide some of the best evidence to date on the success of IMPACT, the research may not be widely applicable to other districts and states. IMPACT and DCPS remain outliers in many respects:

  • IMPACT uses value-added data to measure an individual teachers’ contribution to student learning, which many evaluation systems have eschewed.
  • IMPACT includes not one, not two, but five observations of classroom practice over the course of the year. Further, two of these observations are conducted by master educators, rather than school principals. Hiring and training objective observers takes time, capacity, and resources that many states and districts do not have – or are unwilling to dedicate – for evaluation.
  • IMPACT’s improvement and incentive structures are also well-developed and supported. DCPS has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its coaching and professional development and link it to IMPACT. Further, the bonuses and salary increases for highly effective teachers are substantial, thanks in part to foundation funding. While this external support may raise questions of sustainability, these incentives have been institutionalized in the district’s contract with the Washington Teachers Union.
  • In a way, IMPACT operates at both a state- and district-level. Some of the lessons learned from IMPACT may not be applicable in states, which face additional layers of governance and greater heterogeneity. On the flip side, IMPACT may not be a model for other districts, where administrators could have less autonomy to develop, implement, and revise evaluation systems.

In other words, the results from D.C. are encouraging, but there is still much to learn. More worrisome, as teacher evaluation reform takes hold across the country as part of Race to the Top and states’ ESEA waiver plans, these positive results may prove to be a one-off. IMPACT is as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get – especially compared to the rudimentary, half-baked, and vague evaluation systems described in many states’ waiver requests. While it is important for states to follow through with their promises to implement new evaluation systems, the quality of this implementation should be of equal – or even greater – concern to policymakers, educators, and advocates moving forward. 

At US News' Debate Club: Fix, Don't Eliminate, the Federal Role in Education

July 25, 2013
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Yesterday, US News & World Report asked five experts in its Debate Club whether the Senate should pass the House’s No Child Left Behind rewrite – the Student Success Act. With the last week's House action, the Student Success Act is the first piece of legislation to make it to a floor vote in the six years since NCLB has been due for reauthorization. Sounds like progress, right?

Well I don’t agree. Here’s what I had to say about the Student Success Act: “Unfortunately, the Student Success Act isn't going to fix either policy [NCLB or NCLB waivers]. Because the Student Success Act doesn't want to fix the federal role in education – it wants to eliminate it.”

What does that mean? While the bill would reduce the scope of the federal role in education by freezing funding at sequester levels and eliminating programs and U.S. Department of Education staff, funding isn’t my biggest issue with the Student Success Act. The larger problem is that the bill guts federal accountability for schools and educators at the same time. There are no requirements for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, no requirements for states to implement rigorous school accountability systems or teacher evaluations, and no requirements for states to meaningfully support school improvement. (You can see a detailed comparison of all the various NCLB reauthorization proposals here.)  

Yes, NCLB was too prescriptive for states in certain areas. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for no federal role whatsoever. As I explain:

"Skeptics say that the federal government can make states do things, but can't make them do things well. But that's the point: without a strong federal role, states may not do anything at all. Instead of giving states slack in the right places (e.g. how to improve schools, how to produce effective teachers), the Student Success Act gives up entirely – no standards, no accountability, no improvement.”

You can read (and vote for) my full response in the Debate Club here, along with commentary from Rep. George Miller (D-CA); president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten; the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

Waivers (of Waivers) Watch: If It Looks Like a Pause, and It Sounds Like a Pause…

June 18, 2013
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Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the question of whether states can delay their timeline for using Common Core assessments in accountability systems for schools and teachers. The tests are set to be fully deployed during the 2014-15 school year, and according to the original policy for offering No Child Left Behind waivers, the results from the assessments would also be used for school accountability and educator evaluations that year (except in states that applied for waivers after August 2012 – see this nifty chart for a full breakdown). Under the new policy, however, states would be able to apply to hold off using the evaluation results for personnel decisions for an extra year – meaning that, in some states, the results from the 2014-15 year would be used to provide feedback and inform professional development only.

The question of whether to “pause” or place a “moratorium” on Common Core implementation has divided education stakeholders. Fifteen organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, support a moratorium on high-stakes accountability (including student promotion and graduation policies, personnel decisions, and school improvement designations) associated with the Common Core. Instead, these groups - the Learning First Alliance - would like to focus all immediate efforts on improving the supports teachers have to adopt the Common Core, including professional development, curriculum, technology infrastructure, and other resources. On the other hand, Chiefs for Change – a group of eleven reform-minded chief state school officers – urged Secretary Duncan to maintain the Common Core implementation timeline, even for high-stakes decisions, noting that states made these commitments years ago and should not backtrack on accountability.

Others took a slightly more measured approach, but still supported a pause on some components of implementation. The Council of Chief State School Officers asked for state flexibility in three areas: school ratings, teacher evaluations, and which assessments to use for accountability during 2013-14. Some states could maintain the rigorous timelines laid out in their waiver plans, while others could choose to slow down on one or all of these components.

And it appears that Secretary Duncan chose to take the CCSSO route, more or less. States could apply – if they want – to delay the most serious consequences for teachers, like decisions to award tenure or dismiss staff, for one year. Additionally, states would have new flexibility for implementing assessments and school accountability systems. They could apply to use either existing state assessments or Common Core field test results for accountability in the 2013-14 school year (to avoid the so-called “double testing” problem).

While Secretary Duncan insisted the new policy is not a “pause” or a “moratorium” on Common Core, it’s hard to distinguish between an “extension” – the language used by the Department – and a “pause.” No matter what you call it, the requirement for waiver states to use evaluations for personnel decisions can be shelved for a year. And there is no question that states have had a lot of time to fully transition to the Common Core – in most cases, over four years, longer than they had to implement all of the components of No Child Left Behind. In the words of Chad Aldeman, “If this isn’t enough time, what would be?” Will opposition to using teacher evaluations for personnel decisions really die down by the time 2016 rolls around? Further, the new policy could create additional confusion in an already confusing waiver process. It says something that the Department has to release a four-page, state-by-state chart just to explain the timeline for implementing the waiver components (still waiting for a state-by-state chart explaining what they’re actually doing – a far more complicated question).

Still, the Secretary’s decision is a fair compromise between the competing advocacy groups’ positions. And I give credit to the Department for one thing: holding firm on the most critical component of accountability, continuous improvement. More so than the punitive consequences, like school closures and teacher dismissals, accountability really serves to provide meaningful and transparent feedback to schools and educators and give them a roadmap to improve. During the transition to college- and career-ready standards, it is imperative for both schools and teachers to be evaluated on their progress and to use information from evaluations to improve the implementation process. If accountability and other incentives for educators are not aligned to the standards, what kind of signal does that send about the value of implementing them well?

So yes, there will be a pause. And members of Congress can now wave binders full of waivers, and then waivers of waivers, during hearings. But at least the Department is not pressing pause on what’s most important: its expectations for higher standards, better assessments, and continuous improvement.

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 13, 2013

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate HELP Committee convened to mark up Chairman Tom Harkin's (D-IA) bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. @NewAmericaEd's Anne Hyslop and Conor Williams live-Tweeted, and we've collected some of the main takeaways here, ICYMI.

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 12, 2013

Harkin, Alexander, and Waivers: Your ESEA Markup Cheat Sheet

June 10, 2013

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will markup the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, the latest ESEA reauthorization proposal from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch have already recapped many of the changes proposed to accountability for schools and educators, as well as Title I and early learning programs. But we have yet to weigh in on the alternative proposal offered by the Committee’s Republican members, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Here are the three biggest differences between the two bills:

1. No love for Common Core. Alexander’s bill – the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act – includes detailed language to explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from exercising any direction, preference, or control over state’s academic content standards (like the Common Core State Standards) or achievement standards (i.e. cut scores that determine what it means to be college- and career-ready). This also has big implications for education data and reporting – more on that below.

Clearly concerned with federal overreach, this level of specificity around the Department’s role should appeal to critics of the common standards, claiming they are step one toward a “federal curriculum” or “national school board.” But Alexander is silent on a specific timeline or transition to college- and career-ready standards and tests – another increasingly divisive issue. Harkin’s bill would allow states a one-year “pause,” requiring implementation by the 2015-16 school year, even though both Common Core consortia say they will deliver their assessments on-time in 2014-15.

2. A mini-backpack for Title I funds. Another sharp contrast with the Harkin proposal: states could allocate Title I funds to districts based only on their number of eligible children – and federal funding could then follow the child to any public school in the district. Similar to a Romney campaign proposal (but on a smaller scale, without the option to use Title I funds to attend out-of-district public schools or private schools, or to pay for tutoring), it is unclear how many states would take advantage of this provision. How would it work in districts that lack other public school options – in particular, rural districts or districts where the overwhelming majority of schools are low-performing? Funding fights are always messy – how would school and district administrators respond to the change? The Alexander bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning that states and districts would not be penalized for spending less on education from year to year, another potential sore spot for local school leaders.

3. States: choose your own accountability adventure. Unlike the Democrats’ bill, Every Child Ready for College or a Career would not require performance targets for schools. As Politics K-12 predicted, this was a major partisan sticking point between Harkin and Alexander. And transparency – rather than accountability – is the key policy lever in the Republican proposal. States can choose to differentiate between schools as they see fit.

Further, the Senate Republican proposal would prohibit the Department from specifying, defining, or prescribing any measure that states include in their accountability systems. Presumably, this means states could choose how they want to define everything from adequate student growth, to a cut score for college and career readiness, to how they define graduation rates. Would this undermine data comparability between states, including efforts to report a uniform graduation rate?

Alexander’s bill also doesn’t require states to identify any set percentage of Title I schools for improvement, leaving both identification and intervention entirely up to states (with the exception that students be allowed to transfer if their schools are identified). Given states’ history with setting rigorous goals and expectations for schools (as this new Education Sector report reminds us), Alexander’s bill would effectively set federal education policy back twenty years – to the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act.

Finally, Alexander’s bill would not require states to develop teacher or principal evaluation systems, but they could use Title II funds for these purposes. And unlike Harkin’s proposal, states could partner with for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions, to implement their plans for preparing, training and improving the quality of teachers and school leaders. Because the bill also eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” provision, states would not have to report, whether teachers are distributed equitably between Title I and non-Title I schools – another blow for accountability and a big difference between the Alexander and Harkin proposals.

The bottom line? Alexander’s bill doesn’t actually require states to do anything. And that’s a problem. As Chad Aldeman also notes in his smart take on the Alexander bill, Every Child College or Career Ready relies on assurances from states that they will implement rigorous and high-quality standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As Aldeman writes: “There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.” If a plan is a poor substitute for policy, then an assurance as policymaking is downright laughable.

To help keep both draft bills – along with No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s waiver policy – straight, download this side-by-side cheat sheet to use during the markup. You can click also click on the image below to enlarge it. And of course, the always-helpful Politics K12 team has another side-by-side comparison that features the House Republican plan

Comparing ESEA Reauthorization Proposals

Follow along with us tomorrow, and stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage.

First Look: Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act

June 5, 2013
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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released yet another attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind: the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA). NCLB, due for a Congressional rewrite since 2007, has few remaining fans. But all previous reauthorization bills, including a bipartisan effort from Sen. Harkin and Mike Enzi (R-WY) last Congress, have failed miserably. While every Democratic Senator on the Committee signed off on the new draft legislation, Harkin could not sway key Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Ranking Member on the Committee, plans to offer his own reauthorization legislation later this week, with partisan bills also expected from the House Education and Workforce Committee later this month.

Given the partisan nature of the Harkin bill and Congress in general, the odds for a successful reauthorization are more dismal than ever. Insiders agree: the latest Whiteboard Advisors tracking survey found that 87 percent of edu-insiders believe reauthorization will occur after January 2015. Add 37 states and Washington, D.C. with NCLB waivers into the mix, and there is little real pressure from the administration or from state and local policymakers to rewrite the law – especially a bill that would increase the role of the federal government and take away some of the flexibility states received in their waiver plans (more on that below).

Harkin’s bill is scheduled for a Committee markup next Tuesday. In the meantime, here are some of the key provisions we’re watching within Title I – the bill’s largest program – as well as areas for excitement and concern. Education Week, New York Times, and Huffington Post also offer excellent recaps of the proposed legislation.

Timeline and Interaction with NCLB Waivers

States, regardless of waiver status, must immediately begin implementing college- and career-ready assessments and reporting disaggregated student achievement data for any subgroup larger than 16 students. Otherwise, there is a two-year transition period to establish a baseline for performance targets and to identify schools for improvement based on the accountability provisions in SASA. This is a no-brainer: any reauthorization at this point cannot dismantle states’ NCLB flexibility overnight.

What’s far more interesting, however, is that Sen. Harkin is borrowing some ideas from the Department when it comes to waivers. Under SASA, state Title I plans become the new NCLB waivers – subject to Department-approval, including peer review, every four years. Any significant changes to standards, assessments, performance targets, or accountability would fall under the review and revision process. 

What’s brilliant (and quite welcome for education policy wonks) is that this provision eliminates the possibility that the next federal education law gets trapped in reauthorization limbo like NCLB. And it gives Congress more oversight over the renewal/waiver process, since it’s authorized explicitly in the law. Another welcome provision is that the bill requires states’ plans to include how they are improving access to full-day kindergarten if they fund it and to report the distribution of effective teachers – data currently unavailable to most parents, researchers, and policymakers.

Academic Standards

Under SASA, states would have to adopt college- and career-ready academic content standards in reading, math, and science by January 2015. States would also need to adopt achievement standards in all three subjects and, unlike previous bills, demonstrate that they are aligned with credit-bearing academic coursework, without need for remediation, in the state’s public colleges and universities. Without alignment to actual postsecondary standards, states’ new K-12 standards would be college- and career-ready in name-only. While the draft bill could go further, this is a move in the right direction.

The proposed legislation also weighs in on the growing backlash to the Common Core standards. SASA reiterates that the Department of Education cannot “mandate, direct, or control a State’s college and career ready academic content.” Finally, Sen. Harkin would require any state that uses Title I funds for early childhood education to develop early learning guidelines for preschool programs and early grade standards for students in grades K-3. These standards would be required to address multiple domains of learning, including social-emotional development and approaches to learning (ability to persist at a challenging task, work with others, make decisions) and align with the state’s college- and career-ready standards. While this could help encourage states to address the specific needs of its youngest students and how they learn best, it should be a requirement for all states, though, and not just those who use their Title I dollars for preschool programs.

Assessments

Not a lot has changed as far as the NCLB testing schedule, but SASA would require states to administer college- and career-ready assessments by the 2015-16 school year – with assessments subject to a technical review by the Department. This provision has big implications for both the Common Core consortia and other competitors, like ACT. And Bellwether’s Andy Smarick recently revealed that the Department is also revising its review process, so this issue will emerge regardless of an NCLB reauthorization.

Another big change in the Harkin bill is that assessments must measure whether students are performing on grade level, as well as identify the specific grade level at which the student is performing. In other words, states would be allowed to administer computer-adaptive tests that adjust to students’ abilities, using items at the 4th or 5th grade level for advanced 3rd grade students and simpler items aligned to 1st or 2nd grade standards for those that are below-grade level. By allowing states to accurately measure students’ abilities, teachers would have much better information to help students improve and stay on target to postsecondary readiness. Given the importance of grade-level reading and a growing number of states that retain students based on it, this provision is sorely needed.

School Accountability

Like the administration’s NCLB waivers, Harkin’s proposal for accountability includes aggregate and disaggregated measures of student achievement and growth and establishes annual targets for school performance. But unlike the waivers, SASA defines what sufficient academic growth is: a rate of growth by which students would be performing at grade level within three years or by the end of a grade span (like high school). Given that some states’ waivers include growth models that don’t actually measure individual student growth, a better definition is overdue. However, states would also be allowed to submit alternative growth models to the Department for approval, so any sub-par models in the waivers could, theoretically, still be used.

Annual targets can also be carried over from states’ NCLB waivers or approved by the Department anew. States on the latter track would set goals, based on 2014-15 data, which aim for all schools to be performing similarly to schools at the 90th percentile over a “reasonable” amount of time and expect greater progress for lower-performing subgroups. Alternatively, these states could submit an “equally ambitious” set of goals for Department approval. On their face, these targets sound even more rigorous than those in states’ waivers. However, it’s hard to judge how difficult these targets would be without greater clarity on what, exactly, “reasonable” and “equally ambitious” mean. Notably, states’ goals cannot recognize a GED or other equivalency as a high school diploma, and super-subgroups would be eliminated in any new goals states develop.

But the most important – and welcome – change between SASA and states' waivers is that these targets actually matter beyond school report cards. As research shows, serious interventions – or the threat of them – could be the difference between schools improving or stagnating. Harkin’s bill would require state accountability systems to identify and intervene in focus and priority schools, along with schools failing to meet the same performance goals for two consecutive years. The Harkin bill is also more explicit about what happens to focus and priority schools if they do not improve than most state waivers: focus schools become priority schools after six years, while priority schools are subject to state takeover, restart, or closure if they are re-identified as a priority school after three years.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sen. Harkin’s bill suffers in two areas: defining school improvement strategies and school report cards. In defining what schools must do to improve and what school data must be reported to parents, every Democratic Senator’s favored approach or data point appears to be included, leaving a jumbled mess of burdens and requirements for states, districts, and schools.

School improvement strategies – in addition to the specific provisions of the transformation, turnaround, whole school reform, restart, and closure models – must include over 15 common elements, from professional development, to improving coordination and access to early learning, to data-driven instruction, to positive behavioral interventions and supports. While these are all important factors to consider (and New America has written about the need to include preschool and the early grades in school turnaround), it’s a vague and inordinately long list to tackle in three years, especially if state and district capacity for school improvement is lacking.

SASA’s treatment of school report cards is even worse. After stating that school report cards must be “concise” and “easy to understand,” the draft bill includes over twenty data points that must be reported for all schools (NCLB required less than five). But there are actually far more than twenty – it could be hundreds. That is because nearly every data point must be reported by grade and all must be disaggregated by subgroup, and then cross-tabulated between subgroups. This data should be publically available. But does it all need to be reported in one place, where it could easily overwhelm parents and families? Ironically, despite all the data that must be included, there are still missing pieces – particularly enrollment in full-day and half-day kindergarten and chronic absenteeism.

There is a lot more (believe it or not) in the legislation, so New America will continue to cover the Strengthening America’s Schools Act on and the markup on Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

Waiver Watch: Deep in the Heart of Texas

March 11, 2013
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Texas has joined Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and 46 other states (including Washington, D.C.) in seeking waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With Nebraska and Montana sitting out, Vermont and North Dakota withdrawing, and California flat-out rejected, the pool of non-waiver states continues to shrink. But despite jumping on the waiver bandwagon, Texas breaks the mold in many respects.

Although the Lone Star State’s refusal to adopt the Common Core is one important distinction from other waiver winners, this wasn’t the detail I was most keen to uncover in their formal request. Texas’ plan to implement their own college- and career-ready standards and assessments actually stood out as one of the stronger points of their waiver, and other non-Common Core states, like Virginia and Minnesota, have successfully applied. Rather, Texas had originally considered asking the Department of Education for leeway to redesign the federal Title I funding formula – a provision that would have gone well beyond the flexibility granted to other states and a demand that would have undoubtedly made Texas’ waiver dead on arrival. To their credit, Texas officials removed this request, bringing their final proposal much closer to what the Department is offering.

But does this mean Texas’ waiver will be a hit with the U.S. Department of Education? Not so fast. While the proposal has strong points – like working with higher education to gain buy-in for college- and career-ready standards and articulating a plan to pilot teacher evaluations and scale them statewide – Texas’ proposed system of school accountability and improvement is not among them. In fact, Texas’ waiver could significantly undermine efforts to hold schools accountable for the performance of individual student subgroups.

Texas’ request is complicated by the fact that its state accountability system, which has operated in parallel to NCLB, is undergoing a significant overhaul, with many provisions yet to be finalized. Because Texas would like to fit its existing system into the waiver requirements, the state simply excluded these half-baked provisions from its request. Therefore, Texas’ waiver omits critical details, including how student progress will be measured, what annual performance targets will be, how each component within accountability will be weighted, and how focus and priority schools will be selected. Further, the application doesn’t even include Texas’ proposed framework, burying the information in attachments and hyperlinks.

For those that do seek out the information, Texas’ new performance index leaves a lot to be desired. Similar to other states, Texas plans to use a combination of four indices for accountability: student achievement, student progress, achievement gap closure, and postsecondary readiness. But the state does not specify how the index would translate into specific interventions, i.e. focus and priority schools.

Even more worrisome is how student subgroups and academic subjects will be treated across the four indices. While some states created “super-subgroups,” Texas took a different approach: ignore subgroups altogether.  Within the student achievement index, only the all students group is considered, with proficiency rates combined further across all subject areas. Yet for measuring student progress, subjects are considered separately and all traditional subgroups count– with the exception of low-income students, who are only considered within the performance gap closure index. But the gap closure measures do not consider English Language Learners or special education students. Finally, within the postsecondary readiness index, only racial subgroups are considered on one measure (advanced proficiency rates), while all subgroups (except low-income students) are considered for graduation rates. Texas does not provide a rationale for picking and choosing which indices apply to which subgroups.

Texas could also be plagued by an issue that cropped up in other waivers: annual performance targets. Texas’ targets would be based on the goal of cracking the top ten states nationally on college and career readiness by 2020 – a novel approach worth considering. But it’s unclear how the state could judge itself against others to define the annual targets. Texas is not a Common Core state, and existing national measures, like the SAT or ACT, would only apply to high schools. If the proposed readiness index were used instead, the ranking would be based on Texas assessments, students graduating with advanced Texas diplomas, and graduation rates. Using these measures, Texas would be number one by default – no other state has similar data.

Given these issues, I am doubtful that the Department could approve Texas’ request in its current form. There are simply too many unanswered questions and missing details. That said, Texas’ request is strong enough in other areas to allow for productive negotiations with the Department. With additional assurances and information from the Lone Star State, along with some give and take, NCLB flexibility could reach deep in the heart of Texas by the 2013-2014 school year.

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