Callaghan: Waiver forces changes in Washington school system

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

People involved in public education likely were thrilled at the news in July that Washington state had been granted a waiver from the increasingly onerous rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That's the law that was intended to get the nation's schools to improve the achievement of students via a combination of carrots and sticks. It is what pushed states to set high standards and hold both the students and the adults accountable for meeting them. But it has come to be represented mostly by the growing list of schools failing to make adequate yearly progress. Hating "No Child Left Behind" is one of the few aspects of education that unites forces that are often at odds.

With the waiver, Washington has won increased flexibility in how it uses federal money and how it will be measured. Politicians from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to Gov. Chris Gregoire to state schools chief Randy Dorn celebrated the news. Not mentioned, however, was that the waiver was for one year only. If the state wants it to last beyond the upcoming school year, it must adopt further changes to how it intervenes in troubled schools and how teachers and principals are evaluated.

Specifically, the feds want the state to beef up how student test scores are used to measure schools, teachers and principals. Given that use of "student growth data" has been one of the most argued-over aspects of school reform, the required changes are substantive.

Some can be done administratively. Dorn said the state Board of Education is already using test scores in its accountability index that identifies struggling schools and successful schools. And the implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation law passed this year should allow his department to meet another requirement of the feds: that teachers and principals with low scores on student growth can't get the highest rating, "distinguished."

But one change will require legislation. The new evaluation law does not specifically require that all evaluations -- including a streamlined evaluation for teachers who have done well for three consecutive years -- use student test results. Dorn doesn't think that will be controversial as long as the changes are limited and don't reopen, yet again, the education reform issue. Lawmakers who negotiated the final bill say there was no intent to allow experienced teachers to go years without having test scores evaluated.

Push for reform

Still, all conditions are further examples of how much reform has been pushed onto states by the Obama administration. In three years, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has used the Race to the Top competition and now the NCLB waiver to get states such as Washington to do what they wouldn't or couldn't do before. Washington, for example, passed its first meaningful teacher and principal evaluation system in hopes of winning Race money. To get the waiver, it beefed up the system by requiring that student test results be a significant factor in evaluations and by placing consequences on poor evaluations.

Federal pressure led to the creation of an accountability system to identify and intervene in the state's poorest-performing schools. The waiver application committed the state to focusing that intervention on achievement gaps for low-income and minority students. The last legislative session also saw passage of new requirements that evaluation results β€” not just seniority β€” be considered when deciding teacher assignments, including layoffs. State Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who helped negotiate the evaluation and teacher assignment changes, said pressure from the federal Department of Education was vital in forcing agreement.

Dorn agreed. "Would we have ever revised the evaluation piece and gotten growth data included" without financial encouragement from Duncan? he asked. "We had union contracts that banned the use of test scores." "It's been pretty phenomenal," Dorn added. "I take my hat off to them."