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The ‘California 8’ Waiver: What it Means for Local Schools

Brianna Sacks | August 7, 2013

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Screen-shot-2013-05-08-at-10.09.34-AMThe No Child Left Behind waiver won by Los Angeles Unified and seven other California school districts gives them more funding and flexibility to improve schools that serve more than a million students around the state.

The waiver is a one-of-a-kind, as it marks the first time a group of districts were exempted from “No Child” provisions that would have required that all students be proficient in English and math by 2014. They also would have forced California to pay more attention to student achievement, especially as measured by standardized tests. Critics said “No Child” also resulted in as many as 500 California schools being dubbed as “failing” for not meeting nearly impossible improvement targets.

“It’s not the simple thing to do but it’s the right thing to do,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Tuesday. “Especially when these districts represent more students than are in several states.”

After months of revisions, the new accountability system negotiated by LA Unified and seven other California school districts under the guidance of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), will take effect next month. During a one-year trial period, federal education officials will monitor the districts to ensure the new measures of school, student and educator performance and effectiveness are working.

The system will be fully in place by the 2015-16 school year.

It measures school improvement by assessing such factors as standardized tests, graduation rates, suspension, expulsion, chronic absences, English learner improvement and campus “culture and climate.” It will also take into account surveys of parents, student and staff.

CORE officials continuously cited equity and transparency as their two main goals, saying that the districts’ eight superintendents’ evaluations will also be linked to their students’ performance.

John Deasy, L.A. Unified’s superintendent, said he was not surprised the government accepted the waiver, and he is ready for L.A. schools to reap the benefits.

“We are ready to enact this,” he said. “We completed the modeling and we know our schools. We have ability to reward schools now and focus on our priority schools the way they should be focused on.”

Districts Get More Money

The waiver frees up about $150 million in Title I dollars that each district can decide how to spend. L.A. Unified will receive as much as $80 million of the money.

Deasy said the district will continue to use a chunk of that money for transportation but will also have the ability to create after school programs and to pay for other resources that had been scarce.

Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser said most of his schools will choose to redirect the funding to create intervention programs like SAT prep, tutoring and college prep.

“Superintendents in Long Beach and L.A. know a lot better than I do what his students need and where that money should go,” said Duncan. “We will just hold them accountable for the results.”

Counting the Uncounted

Duncan hailed the eight districts for reducing the number of students needed to measure a subgroup for performance in every school, lowering the number to 20 from 100, which is the minimum under current California law.

“California’s number was unacceptably high and these students were invisible,” said Duncan. “Now tens of thousands of additional students from historically under represented subgroups will have to be accounted for.”

Measuring a minimum of 20 students per subgroup, like English Learners, low-income students, Latino students or students with disabilities, forces schools to track categories of students who would have been bypassed under the old “No Child” system.

“In L.A., we have some elementary schools of 300 kids, but 50 students might be considered ‘low-income,’ so they would not have been included in a subgroup,”  Deasy said. “Now accountability is no longer a feature of zip code but a feature of every school.”

By reducing the subgroup size across all participating districts, schools will now be held accountable for reporting the progress of about 153,000 additional students who are mostly Latino, African American, English Learners, or students with disabilities.

Asian-American students, for example, had often gone unaccounted for as a subgroup in many California schools. Now 55 more schools next year have Asian student populations that will be taken into account because of this new model, according to CORE President Mike Hansen.

“The progress of 46,000 students with disabilities in these eight districts will now be measured,” said Duncan. “As well as 23,000 African American Students. But I worry about students across the rest of California that will remain invisible under the No Child Left Behind System.”

A Buddy System

The new accountability system will pair low and high-performing schools of similar size and demographics across the districts in an effort to help struggling schools learn from successful ones.

“We want to get those in the trenches more involved,” said Steinhauser. “This new support system is modeled after very successful school systems in other states and in Ontario and Hong Kong.”

Deasy also applauded the new system’s plan to network schools across the state and to solve academic performance problems with local assets, rather than calling for state and federal intervention.

“When schools persistently struggle, the first line now is to build capacity from schools that are successful,” he said. “It’s a cross district commitment to collaboration.”

However, the fact that only eight school districts in the state will now be under a more stringent accountability system could cause pushback from unions and cause confusion with the state’s own accountability measuring system.

While the state is moving toward a more robust and comprehensive accountability system instead of relying mostly on student test scores, CORE says its breakdown uses more parameters to measure a school’s performance.  School culture, climate and the social-emotional domain will make up 40 percent of a school’s improvement score, with “academic domain” accounting for 60 percent.

“We will now have three layers of accountability ,” said Rick Miller, the CORE executive director. “District, state and now ours.”

Union Choices

Unions were not involved in creating the waiver, though CORE says the “door has always been open.” Now that the waiver is passed, “we will work through issues we need to work through,” said San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Under the new system, educator and principal success will now be linked to student achievement, a hotly-contested method among unions that was at the heart of disagreements with past California “No Child” waiver requests.

While L.A. Unified has already mandated that 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is measured by student achievement, schools in other districts will now have the choice to use the same percentage, propose a different model or drop out of the waiver system, altogether.

But what if unions don’t go for the required 20 percent?

There is a second option, know as the Massachusetts model, which relies on multiple measures not including student achievement. The results will be compared with student achievement results. Any misalignment will be sharply focused on.

“You ultimately have to convince unions this is ultimately better for them,” said Miller.

Previous posts: ‘No Child’ Waiver OKd for LA Unified, 7 Other CA School DistrictsUpdate: Federal Review “Going In the Right Direction” for LAUSDFinal Decision Close on CORE’s ‘No Child’ Waiver RequestTeachers Unions Oppose NCLB Waiver That the ‘CA 9′ Want

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