No Child Left Behind Waivers: What to Think of the New Ed Trust Report

No Child Left Behind Waivers: What to Think of the New Ed Trust Report
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Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Glenda Ritz points out the 1,000-page amended federal waiver on her desk as she addresses the news media in her Statehouse office on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. The U.S. Department of Education granted a one-year extension of Indiana's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law, ensuring the state keeps control of more than $200 million in federal funds, after it resolved concerns over how it monitored low-performing schools and evaluated teachers and principals. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Charlie Nye)

RCEd Commentary

Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest, stays at rest.

Newton’s second law of motion: the greater the mass of an object, the more force needed to accelerate it.

In education, achievement gaps are a massive object at rest, and these gaps aren’t closing, despite an unprecedented amount of policy force placed on narrowing them under No Child Left Behind. Now, in a new brief, the Education Trust has warned the U.S. Department of Education that these policy forces are weakening under NCLB waivers, reiterating the civil rights community’s dissatisfaction with how waivers include, or don’t include, minority students as part of school accountability. Civil rights groups have already advocated in favor of changing the Department’s requirements for the role super-subgroups, graduation rates, and achievement goals play in waivers -- and Democrats in Congress have pressed for changes, too. Now, they are taking a closer look at how states’ school rating systems treat minority students, using Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota as case studies. But while the report’s findings add to the still-miniscule research base on waivers, it overlooks critical questions about how minority kids -- and even those pesky achievement gaps -- are affected by the waiver policy.

A little context first: the rating systems Ed Trust analyzed are not necessarily linked to improvement efforts for low-performing schools. In other words, these systems give schools a label, but they don’t have to do anything beyond that. Under waivers, only focus and priority schools are required to receive interventions from their districts, and states could choose whether their overall rating systems -- the kind Ed Trust looked at -- were tied to these specific federal categories of schools. In Florida’s case, the school grading system is linked to interventions: “D” and “F” schools are focus and priority schools, respectively. But in Minnesota, the state modifies its rating system to emphasize subgroup performance more in naming focus schools (and even more curious, these schools are not identified annually). Thus, Ed Trust’s findings may apply more to “report card accountability” -- transparent reporting of information on school performance -- than to “consequential accountability” -- systems that link school performance to interventions, sanctions/rewards, and resources or other supports.

That’s not to say the rating systems Ed Trust examined don’t matter. A-F grades and school ratings shape the perceptions families, policymakers, and educators form about the quality of schools in their communities. By distilling complex information from numerous grades, subjects, and student groups into an overall label, they’re intended to give a quick snapshot of “good” schools, “struggling” schools, “improving” schools, and so on. This has all sorts of implications at the local level: which neighborhoods are in high-demand for families, which schools are held up as models for others, educator morale and the teaching assignments that are viewed as most desirable, and more.

Given that context, here are the main -- and limited -- takeaways from Ed Trust’s analysis:

  1. These states’ systems for rating schools categorize them in such a way that student achievement is indeed better the higher a school is rated (black students in “A” schools are more likely to be proficient than black students in “C” schools, white students in “A” schools are more likely to be proficient that white students in “C” schools, etc.). So far, so good.

  2. But these states also categorize schools in such a way that there are significant achievement gaps within schools at all levels of quality. So among schools that are identified in the lowest tiers, there are large achievement gaps, but significant gaps also appear among schools at the highest levels. This means that black students at “A” schools may, on average, have lower proficiency rates than white students at “C” schools.**

In short, Ed Trust believes that the school report cards these states use let schools off too easy for those stubborn gaps. However, the report leaves unanswered questions about how consequential accountability under waivers has affected minority students, especially compared to NCLB. In other words, the report illuminates more about how school information is communicated, and the mixed signals this information could send, than it does about whether the accountability system actually improves student learning for minority kids.

To be fair, nobody has the answer to that question yet (and it’s a really tough question to answer). That is why it is so critical for the U.S. Department of Education to ask states to supply data on student performance in their low-performing schools as part of the upcoming waiver renewal process. It’s past time to start asking whether waiver accountability has accelerated student outcomes, especially for the at-risk students Ed Trust is most concerned about.

Of course, there’s also Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And with waivers, the expansion of report card accountability has come with a contraction of meaningful, consequential accountability. This is the essential NCLB waiver trade-off between states and the Department. States had to set annual performance goals for minority students (a.k.a AMOs), but nothing had to happen if schools didn’t meet them. Only the bottom 15 percent of Title I schools must be named priority or focus -- meaning that the other 85 percent likely get little attention. The deal was that states could identify fewer low-performing schools, but they had to do more to help that limited number of schools improve through more rigorous interventions. Lacking the right data, Ed Trust’s report cannot shed much light on whether this critical trade-off paid off.

If the concern is how to accelerate achievement for minority kids, then the civil rights community must recognize that radically altering states’ school rating systems, or eliminating super-subgroups, or requiring schools to face sanctions if they miss AMOs, will not get the job done -- mostly because the Department is unlikely to budge on these larger waiver policies right now. They’d get too much state pushback. Instead, civil rights organizations should expand their advocacy agenda to include more realistic wins, like pressing the Department to request data on minority student outcomes (Including growth) from states, make it public, and use this data for waiver renewals. Further, if data were collected from priority and focus schools, as well as the 85 percent of Title I schools that don’t receive interventions, better research could be conducted to make the case for the larger policy changes these groups prefer. It may seem small in comparison, but adding these more feasible items to the agenda could just build the momentum Ed Trust needs to break the achievement gap inertia.

**An important caveat: Ed Trust’s analysis only examines proficiency data, so it does not reveal how states’ ratings classify schools based on student progress, or growth -- an added feature of many accountability systems under waivers, and arguably, as Matt DiCarlo and Mike Petrill have noted, a better way to classify schools. So while the schools identified as high-performing in these states have achievement gaps similar to those that are low-performing, their minority students could be exhibiting higher levels of individual growth than those in the bottom tiers or grades.

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