nclbYesterday we posted the letter to Congress, signed by numerous grassroots organizations across the country, asking that they not pass the proposed revisions to NCLB. This letter stands in contrast to the two national teacher unions, several other education professional unions and various civil rights organizations who are urging the passage of the Conference Committee substitute for HR5 and S1177. They note that NCLB was bad legislation in the first place (which is was), that it has been expired for more than seven years (also true) and that new legislation is needed to release states from the current waiver scenario, the “only” thing that saves them from the consequences of the poorly written NCLB. But is a waiver the only livable solution to NCLB? There are many in the state of Washington who would beg to differ since they lost their waiver almost a year ago. Their experience shows there is life outside of the NCLB waiver.

Just to remind everyone, if a state is out of compliance with NCLB, meaning they do not have 100% of their kids testing at grade level, it risks losing flexibility in spending 20% of the Title I monies it receives.  That money must instead be spent on supplemental education services rather than having the flexibility to use those funds for other activities to improve student achievement in low-achieving schools.

For Washington, that meant $40 million of their total Title I funding would have to be spent on things like reading coaches and after school tutoring programs. It was predicted that the loss of this flexibility would mean the laying off of teachers and dramatic impact on the quality of education provided by public schools.

In order to avoid these consequences, states applied for waivers from NCLB which required them to agree to a number of new federally envisaged programs. Among those agreements was the implementation of a teacher evaluation system which tied student test scores to teacher evaluations. This has been a major stumbling block in many states for reasons we have covered in depth when we wrote about Amendment 3. It was no less of a problem in WA where they could achieve no agreement on this aspect of the teacher evaluation system and thus lost their waiver.

Now here’s the news from WA.  The sky has not fallen. Teachers have not been laid off by the hundreds and schools have remained opened. In fact, they have seen an upswing in teacher and parent satisfaction with the school system.  According to the Cabinet Report, “districts have made minimal staff layoffs – mostly specialist positions, according to a report in Tacoma’s News Tribune – and may shuffle a few programs as needed, said OSPI spokesman Olson.” Tulsa World quoted Liv Finne of Seattle-based Washington Policy Center “Life without the waiver is better than life with the waiver.” Lorna Spear, an administrator with the Spokane Public Schools, said dropping the waiver actually saved schools time and money.

Then look at California which has never operated under an NCLB waiver. Again from Tulsa World, “Richard Zeiger, chief deputy of the California Department of Education, said his state saved about $1 billion a year by not implementing the teacher evaluations that a waiver would have required.”

In an Interim Study 0f Teacher Leader Effectiveness/Evaluations (Park, Derby) Common Education for The Oklahoma House of Representatives a presenter testified about the evaluation system being considered. “The expense issues are a problem… The support that you would need to be able to make this process work would be astronomical with what would have to happen statewide. It would amount to an unfunded mandate.” The dollars used to provide the staff support for this effort alone, are dollars that are not used to equip the classroom, pay for education subscription services or pay for better qualified teachers.

Another benefit of living outside the waiver is developing improved, cost effective metrics that are actually meaningful to the people in your state. Washington state has developed its own accountability index which they believe is more accurate than the Annual Yearly Progress objectives (AYP) required by NCLB.  “We feel that we’ve got a really good way of identifying underperforming schools and it’s more valid than AYP,” Olson said to Cabinet Report.  What a concept. States developing their own accountability systems and finding them better than what the federal government handed down. Without losing their waiver, who knew they would be able to do that?

Just because they lost their waiver, doesn’t mean that states are out of the federal system. Since the USDED promised they might let Washington have the waiver back if  they could “obtain the requisite authority to resolve its condition,” more subtle efforts have been underway to put in the federally desired teacher evaluation system. A teacher in WA wrote, “When we first lost our waiver, most legislators and our governor were bound and determined to make sure we were all evaluated using student test scores as a significant part of our evals. A few legislators spoke up against it, but not many, and after some futile attempts circumvent our local contracts, and add that in, things went pretty quiet.” Sounds like what DESE is trying to do in MO through MSBA.

Adding student test scores, or student evaluations to teacher evaluations is not a simple issue, nor is it just an issue for teachers. To date there have been lawsuits filed in five states against this type of evaluations system and more are expected. Suits have been filed in Tennessee, New York, Texas, Florida and New Mexico. The ruling in the NM case is expected to be released in November. VAMBoozled has written several excellent reports on that lawsuit as well as those in two other states.  Other states are watching the outcome of the VAM (Value-Added Model) implementation and more lawsuits are expected when the high stakes consequences of such programs actually kick in.

Student test scores are not the only element of the federally proposed evaluation system. Student evaluations of teachers are also included.  In that OK Interim Study session, Ginger Tinney of the Professional Oklahoma Educators testifies at the 1:58 mark of this audio recording on the serious issue of using student evaluations of teachers as part of their performance reviews. POE conducted a survey of its members who were asked their opinion about student evaluations being part of their teacher evaluation system. Generally speaking teachers were interested in hearing what their students thought of them. But when asked if student evaluations should be used in determining their employment status, 89.7% said No. When asked if they would be comfortable with student evaluations being part of their formal evaluation for employment, 79.68% said No.

Tinney said, “We also know, those who have taught middle school, my how things change from elementary to middle school, especially if you are the cheerleading or football coach and then it becomes a popularity contest. Did you play me? Were you to nice to me and honestly, if this option is used I can see teachers buying candy that week of evaluations and making sure everyone is really happy in the classroom.” Once teachers resort to that kind of placating, the bribery escalates to appeal to the egoistic focus of teenagers. This distorts the teaching process and affects education.

She went on to offer a very serious caution for the study group.

“I’m going to share a bigger concern I have and it is a societal concern. We all know this. We have a real problem right now in America with respect for authority, with our youth.  You can see that with law enforcement interaction.  You can see that probably with legislator interaction and you can see that with our superintendents and principals. And you certainly see that with teachers. What this [evaluation option] will do is shift the power in our classrooms from the teacher to the child and guys, that’s just plain stupid. We should not go here. This is wrong. These are not adults. They do not comprehend the magnitude of our jobs. Our jobs are more important than a popularity contest with our students.”

NCLB waivers want to push these programs onto local districts. They are not without cost both direct and through legal liability. The best solution is the complete repeal of federal involvement in education, but convincing people of that will take time. During that time, it may be the best option for states to continue to operate under NCLB, not the waivers. For those who panic about continuing to live under NCLB, take heart. There is life outside the waiver and it’s actually not too bad.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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