ESEA Waiver and Reauthorization

After four years of federal inaction, 2011 has brought a flurry of movement regarding the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known by its current name, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Passed in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act received broad bipartisan support at the time. It emphasized high standards and a system of accountability for all schools, districts and states. The Act was supposed to be reauthorized and updated in 2007, but no action has been taken.

In the years since 2007, schools and states across the country have struggled to meet the rigid requirements of NCLB while working toward increased systems of accountability. If not every student in a school meets proficiency - or passes the ISAT test - by 2014, it would mean restricted funding and serious consequences for states and local school districts. While no system of assessment is perfect, the measures currently used under NCLB can and should be improved.

Frustrated by Congress' failure to address long overdue reauthorization, and prevented from making necessary changes by the requirements of an increasingly outdated law, several states chose to stand up and inform the federal government that they would be heading in a new direction this year—with or without federal cooperation. Idaho was one of the first states to do so. With several states taking this bold stand, and many others voicing their dissatisfaction with the current law, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced he would establish a waiver program. With a waiver, states now can apply for some flexibility under NCLB and begin moving toward new accountability systems. Forty states have now expressed interest in that program, including Idaho.

The waiver program is a compromise, granting states more flexibility while retaining high levels of accountability and high expectations for student achievement. To qualify for a waiver, states are required to adopt college and career ready standards in English language arts and mathematics, assess students annually, set ambitious yet measurable goals, adopt guidelines that tie local teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement, intervene in struggling schools, and develop reward programs for excellent schools.

Idaho's Students Come First reform laws have positioned Idaho to qualify for a waiver.

First, as the foundation for Students Come First, Idaho adopted college and career ready standards known as the Common Core State Standards. These standards are fewer, clearer, and higher than previous state standards, and they are comparable with any other country in the world. Learn more about Common Core State Standards in last month's newsletter, or on the Common Core website, http://www.corestandards.org/.

Second, as part of the Students Come First laws, Idaho is implementing statewide pay-for-performance, which meets the waiver requirements to reward excellence in the classroom. Teachers can earn bonuses for working in hard-to-fill positions, taking on leadership responsibilities, or working in a school that meets goals for achievement or academic growth in a given year. In addition to financial rewards, the state is working to develop a consistent program for publicly recognizing those schools that continually show high academic achievement and high academic growth.

Third, Idaho now requires that a portion of teacher and principal evaluations be based on student academic growth, as determined by the local school district. This is required under the waiver application.

Finally, as part of Students Come First, Idaho moved toward a growth model for statewide pay-for-performance and for educator performance evaluations. Now, with an ESEA waiver, Idaho can fully implement a statewide system of increased accountability based on academic growth, instead of just proficiency. Growth more accurately measures student achievement and a school's success. Therefore, the state will use this more accurate measure to reward teacher performance, improve the craft of teaching, recognize high-performing schools across the state, and identify schools that need interventions and technical assistance. Read more about Idaho's Growth Model in its article in this newsletter.

Qualifying for a waiver will allow Idaho to move away from rigid, outdated AYP requirements. Superintendent Luna often relates NCLB to the movie title The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The good is that it created a standards-based system where schools are accountable for every child. The bad is that it is a one-size-fits-all model that is difficult to implement in rural states like Idaho. The ugly is the federal government currently sets the goal and then also prescribes the programs states must use to meet that goal. If those programs don't work, states are held accountable. A waiver will allow Idaho to seek higher standards, maintain accountability, better assess students and teachers, and improve our schools in ways that meet state and federal expectations and make sense in our state.

The state plans to apply for a waiver in February 2012. The Idaho State Department of Education held focus groups in October with parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board trustees to gain initial thoughts and input for the waiver application. The state will make its draft proposal available online for public comment in December 2011. After taking public comments into account, the final state application will go to the State Board of Education for approval in January 2012. Visit http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/assessment/FederalReq/ for more information or to submit your initial comments on the waiver process.

At the same time Idaho and other states are applying for waivers, Congress has shown interest in fully reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. Reauthorization is our ultimate goal to ensure we have the best possible law in place. A bi-partisan bill has passed the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. As President-Elect of the CCSSO at the time (now President), Superintendent Luna testified in support of the legislation. Reauthorization would be an important step forward, and it is encouraging to see bi-partisan support. We are hopeful the U.S. House will consider action on reauthorization as well. However, until Congress has reauthorized the Act, and it is signed into law, Idaho will move forward in applying for a waiver so Idaho schools have the flexibility and accountability they need to make sure every student graduates from high school prepared to go on to college or the workforce without the need for remediation.