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'No Child' Waiver Will Increase Flexibility

Flikr Creative Commons / Kawwsu29

  Last week New Hampshire at long last was granted a waiver from the Bush-era education reform law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The federal government first announced the waivers in 2011 because of congressional inaction to reform No Child Left Behind. New Hampshire was the 39th state to be granted one.

But what does the waiver mean for schools and teachers? Much of what’s in the waiver – the Common Core State Standards, a new teacher evaluations model, and support networks for professional development – were efforts already underway in New Hampshire.

Four “Principles”

The waiver had to address four areas of concern:

·         College and Career Ready standards: New Hampshire satisfied this category by adopting the Common Core State Standards, a rigorous set of standards that been taken up by 45 other states.

·         Accountability and Support: Under this section New Hampshire had to put together a new set of goal posts for improving student test-scores. Instead of shooting for 100% proficiency – an NCLB goal, which many thought unworkable – NH will seek to decrease the gap between full proficiency by 50% in six years. The bottom performing 5% of schools will be designated “priority schools”, and the 10% of schools with the largest achievement gap (the gap between top performing and bottom performing students) will qualify for additional resources.

·         Teacher and Principal Evaluation: schools are already required to have some sort of teacher evaluation system in place, but under the waiver schools accepting federal money for teaching high percentages of poor students will be required to base 20 percent of teacher evaluations on a measure of student growth, be it test scores or a locally developed measure. A little over half of New Hampshire schools accept these "Title I" dollars.

·         Reducing unnecessary duplication: This section was meant to spur innovation in terms of reducing administrative costs and streamlining school bureaucracies. In the 126 page waiver document it is given a single page of consideration.

More Local Flexibility

NCLB was often criticized for putting low-performing schools in a punitive straight jacket. Under this system, Franklin was a district in need of improvement. That meant a lot of paperwork: each school needed to write up improvement plans: one for each school, one for the district, and one to apply for a school improvement grant.

“Three different sets of paperwork, three different sets of compliance issues, three different sets of reporting to state or federal,” says Superintendent Maureen Ward, “It was very cumbersome. So having one plan to put forward is just a huge great relief.”

Also, NCLB required struggling schools to set pots of money aside for certain federally required programs. No matter if those programs worked for the school in question or not. At Franklin’s Paul Smith Elementary School that meant setting aside money for a tutoring program that never got much traction.“If we only have twenty kids that take advantage of that tutoring system, that means hundreds of thousands of dollars just sit there for the whole year, doing nothing with it,” explains Paul Smith principal Mike Hoyt.

With the new waiver from NCLB, requirements like these will go by the wayside.

Teacher Evaluations

Perhaps the biggest sticking point in the waiver was the new requirements of teacher and evaluations that were put in place. The DOE can’t force schools to adopt any evaluation system, but the feds can require schools accepting federal money to make changes as a condition for receiving that money.

But the requirement that 20 percent of evaluation be based on some objective measure of student growth generated pushback from some school districts, who feel that ranking teachers based on test scores is impracticable.

So when US officials asked for that requirement, “we pushed back on that,” says Heather Gage, Director of the Instruction division with the NH DOE. She says the state haggled with the feds until they were allowed to use multiple measures – more than just standardized test scores – giving schools more flexibility in grading their teachers.

But in exchange New Hampshire will have to do a study to determine if schools are being rigorous with their teachers. “Let’s say 90 percent of the teachers were rated as highly effective, and 10 percent of the students were proficient,” says Gage in what she calls a silly example “we’re going to be able to say, Mr. School District or Mrs. School District, that doesn’t seem right.”

Swinging Pendulum

Many of the changes being asked of schools and teachers make some a little uncomfortable. In Franklin the district was once one of the bottom three in the state, but has seen dramatic gains. There administrators and teachers have been living under these kinds of efforts for years, and say that in time teachers in other schools will adapt.

“Four years ago, or three years ago people would have been a little hesitant about this, oh now you want us to do this, you want us to do that,” says Superintendent Ward, “but in three years we have proven, not only can our teachers produce but our kids can produce.”

Taken as a whole, Ward says she thinks the waiver represents the education policy pendulum swinging back to the middle. “I think the accountability is a good thing, but we’re coming back now to where the accountability is reasonable.”

And for the next two-years – at least – this is the regime New Hampshire educators will work under.

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