Interesting, fascinating, and different – those are all words we say in polite conversation when we hear about something that happened, but we have yet to decide if we think it was good or bad. This week the U.S. Department of Education issued a waiver to a group of California districts that I think is totally (insert normatively ambiguous adjective here). The waiver allows the districts to create an accountability system tied to school improvement and teacher evaluation efforts.
The feds did this instead of granting a state-wide waiver to the California Department of Education. Thus far, waivers have only been given to states. But California could not present a unified front on various conditions the feds have imposed on these applications, so the state-level waiver was not likely to happen. California districts still wanted the flexibility in spending and implementation of NCLB that accompanies such waivers, so eight of them (Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Francisco Unified, Sanger Unified, and Santa Ana Unified) worked out this deal on their own.
Here are a few observations on why this is so “interesting”:
- The feds usually deal with states, and let states figure out how to influence districts and schools. Does this diminish state authority? Does it expand federal power?
- What happens if districts can make other deals with the feds, for flexibility or money, and we no longer focus on the effort to influence or interact with state policy as a tool to influence districts and schools? Will we get more change, or less?
- Are we releasing pressure on states to do whatever it is somebody else (presumably Congress or the Administration) hopes they do?
- What else could a consortium of districts collaborate on and formalize with federal approval?
- What will happen in these districts if the state eventually gets its own waiver and the districts and schools find themselves with several different applicable accountability systems? Even without a state waiver in the future, how will the state react?
- What impact it will have on school accountability in California? In exchange for the waiver, the California districts agreed to develop a “School Quality Improvement System,” which, according to the USDOE waiver docs, “emphasizes academic achievement, growth, and graduation rate, while also including social-emotional factors and school culture and climate.” This system isn’t fully developed yet and will need to be created and finalized by the districts over the next year. Will this new system hold schools to high standards of performance and create real accountability for schools that consistently fail to meet those standards?
Since accountability and flexibility are so central to charter schools and authorizing, I suggest we watch this development closely. Fascinating…