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State Gets Waiver From No Child Left Behind

Under a federal waiver that was announced Monday, only the lowest-performing 15 percent of Texas public schools will be subject to a series of federally prescribed interventions.

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Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in Texas Weekly. 

After nearly a year of negotiations, the state has finally secured a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the Texas Education Agency announced Monday. 

With the reprieve, only the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools will be subject to a series of federally prescribed interventions, instead of what would have been nearly all of the state's school districts next year because of a failure to meet the law's requirement that 100 percent of their students pass reading and math exams by 2014. Struggling school districts will also no longer be required to set aside 20 percent of their funding for remedial tutoring services.

“The underlying message throughout our negotiations with the federal government has been Texans know what’s best for Texas schools,” TEA commissioner Michael L. Williams said in a statement. “I believe our school districts will appreciate the additional flexibility this waiver provides while also adhering to our strong principles on effective public education.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a letter to the agency that he had granted the waiver for the 2013-14 school year with the condition that Texas continue development of a new teacher evaluation system. The Obama administration has pushed for student achievement on standardized tests to be included as a review of teacher performance, while the agency has said it does not have the authority to require districts to use a specific evaluation measure.

In the final waiver approved by Duncan, the TEA agreed to continue to solicit input about how best to include student growth in  evaluations, including the possibility of weighing performance on statewide tests at 20 percent of a teacher's assessment. It also has yet to decide what factors it will use to determine the bottom 15 percent of school districts.

During a Monday conference call with reporters, Williams said that the state would pilot the new evaluation system in about 40 districts statewide during the 2014-15 school year. He would then "invite, encourage, cajole" the remaining districts to adopt it for the following year. 

When asked whether he would push for the authority to require districts to use the state-developed system during the next legislative session, Williams left the option open. He said the agency had not yet focused on a legislative agenda.

Texas decided to ask for the waiver of the nearly a year ago and had been one of just nine states still waiting for a reprieve from the federal education law.

The delay was the result of ongoing negotiations over the state's approach to evaluating teacher performance. The stalemate over including student achievement on standardized tests as a component of the evaluations led Texas officials to submit a revised application. But even language included in the updated application said school district participation in a new evaluation system, which is still under development, would be voluntary. 

It's an awkward position for the state, said Linda Bridges, the president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, before the waiver was announced. 

"I think they are somewhat in a difficult position with the waiver. Either the commissioner is going to have to ignore legislative intent and look at that as a major factor, or he's going to have to be very clear about that issue being a factor and then look at other multiple measures of evaluation," she said. 

During the most recent legislative session, efforts to emphasize student achievement as a part of teacher evaluations stalled. Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was forced to drop a section from a bill that would have opened the door to tying students’ standardized tests scores to teacher performance because of concerns over whether the tests could accurately reflect student learning.

Such proposals have also faced questions about evaluating teachers whose students aren’t required to take annual standardized tests. Texas students begin taking state standardized exams in third grade. Before they reach high school, they are tested each year in reading and math but less frequently in subjects like science, writing and social studies.

The possibility of a new conversation over including student achievement in teacher evaluations comes as good news, however, for teacher-quality advocates who have argued that it is essential to providing meaningful feedback to educators.

John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, the organization that launched the Texas Teaching Commission in the hopes of encouraging reforms, said support for the policy lagged during the legislative session because it was overshadowed by more urgent topics.

“We look forward to having this issue really get a full consideration because it was not a majority priority or a high visibility topic this session,” he said.

Without the federal waiver, nearly all of the state's school districts would have been subject to sanctions next year, including forced restructuring, for failing to meet the law's requirement that 100 percent of their students pass reading and math exams. When the state applied for the waiver last September — one of Williams' first acts after he was appointed — it did so without agreeing to conditions Duncan had attached to waivers offered to other states.

Before the waiver was announced, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the state must maintain as much flexibility for school districts as possible in its agreement with the federal government. She said additional details of conversations with the education department have been kept confidential.

"I think they are dealing with us in good faith," she said. "We took a different route on our waiver than other states, and that has just taken them a little more time to figure out how to handle it."

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