D.C.’s No Child waiver highlights debate over city’s plan for struggling schools

The District won relief two years ago from the most burdensome provisions of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Now that waiver is set to expire and District officials are seeking permission to extend it, highlighting debate — including among mayoral candidates — about whether the city has a strong enough system to fix chronically struggling schools.

“That’s one thing I really need to know before I vote for a waiver extension, is what happens to these schools that continue to fail?” said Jack Jacobson, a member of the D.C State Board of Education, at a meeting last week. The state board must approve the extension request before it is formally submitted to the U.S. Education Department.

The District and more than 40 states wrote alternative accountability plans in order to win freedom from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, a law that Congress has failed to revamp despite broad agreement that it is unrealistic and unworkable.

In April, Washington state became the first to lose its waiver after its legislature declined to link teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, a change that the Obama administration favors and that the state had promised to make.

Officials at the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the agency responsible for monitoring schools’ compliance with federal mandates, said they do not believe that the city is in danger of losing its waiver.

But the District is not on track to meet the ambitious academic achievement goals that it laid out in order to win a waiver. In addition, according to a recent federal report, the OSSE had faltered in pressing for improvements in the lowest-performing traditional schools, arguably the most important aim of the original No Child Left Behind.

Under the terms of the waiver, those schools were supposed to develop plans for improvement in seven key areas, from leadership and staffing to curriculum, family engagement and school culture. The OSSE promised to monitor those efforts and to report annually on the schools’ progress but failed to do so, according to the federal report.

In seeking a new waiver, OSSE officials have outlined revisions that they say address those shortcomings and make technical changes to clarify the timeline under which struggling schools are expected to improve.

“We believe the accountability system in the Waiver is strong enough to ensure improvement among low-performing schools,” said OSSE spokeswoman Ayan Islam.

OSSE officials plan to submit their proposed revisions for the Education Department’s initial review on May 12, with a final vote by the state education board sometime this summer.

Under the proposed revisions, the lowest-performing schools would get three years to make progress: one year for planning and two to implement changes. If the school does not make gains within those three years, then the OSSE would intervene directly.

The 2014-2015 school year is the first in which OSSE will be expected to serve in that more direct role, overseeing the improvement of 10 schools. OSSE officials said they are in the midst of making plans for how such oversight will work.

Some state education board members are skeptical that the OSSE — an agency that has struggled with high turnover and made a number of public stumbles since its inception in 2007 — has the ability to lead successful turnaround efforts. Jeff Noel, OSSE’s director of data management, said the agency has been working to build such capability.

Board members also questioned another change: to temporarily remove standardized science test results from the formula that determines which schools are considered low-performing.

“The reason science was in there in the first place was because science was getting squeezed out of the curriculum,” said Mary Lord, the board’s vice chair. “If the principals don’t think they’re going to be held accountable for having kids learn this stuff, it’s going to take a back seat.”

OSSE officials said they are recommending the change because of the state board’s recent decision to adopt new science standards, called Next Generation Science Standards. Schools need time to adapt, teachers need time for training and the city needs time to develop a new exam linked to the new standards, they said.

Under the waiver request, science test results would not count for schools until the 2016-17 school year.

Questions about the federal waiver have opened up a broader debate about the city’s architecture for dealing with chronically struggling schools.

Charter schools that fail to live up to their academic goals face closure by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. But there is no such clearly delineated path for struggling traditional schools, whose fate is up to the school system’s chancellor.

D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee, has called the federal waiver toothless and argues that the city needs its own accountability system overseen by a stronger OSSE, operating with greater independence from the mayor. That stronger OSSE would require struggling traditional schools to publicly plan for improvement and to face consequences — such as takeover by an outside operator — if those plans fail.

“When we knew we couldn’t meet the standards, we lowered the standards and changed them,” Catania said of the waiver at a recent hearing. “We have no regime in place for accountability.”

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 D.C. Council member, disagrees. The waiver doesn’t inhibit efforts to improve schools, said Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, and further empowering the OSSE would dilute responsibility for the schools that currently lies solely with the chancellor.

“We don’t want to see a return to the ability to fingerpoint without real accountability,” Shuff said.

“I don’t think that people in the city are looking to OSSE for reforms that they want to see or the ability to hold schools accountable. That falls, for DCPS, in the chancellor’s hands, and the chancellor has plenty of tools to hold schools accountable.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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