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Waiver lets state focus more on school improvement than on punishment

President Barack Obama looks towards U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during remarks in 2011.
President Barack Obama looks towards U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during remarks in 2011.
Chuck Kennedy/White House

Tennessee will move to a less punishing school accountability system under a federal waiver that grants the state continued flexibility under certain provisions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), state officials said Thursday after the U.S. Department of Education announced the extension.

With the state’s current waiver set to expire this summer, Tennessee education officials welcomed the news and touted the waiver as crucial to establishing and implementing a state-specific accountability system instead of following the rigid model established under the ESEA, commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

“Today’s approval will allow us to continue our progress by focusing on our own established goal of growth in achievement for all students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a news release.

The changes are meant to further highlight progress in schools that serve high-needs students, officials explained in Tennessee’s application. Changes include acknowledging when schools move students from “below basic” on achievement tests to “basic”; and measuring schools’ progress on a nuanced scale, rather than just signifying schools either “missed” or “met” certain achievement objectives, with no choices in between. The application was written with feedback from educators across the state.

In Johnson City, where the State Board of Education was in session as the waiver’s approval was announced, state education officials talked about the implications of the news.

“Our accountability system felt a little bit more like a ‘gotcha’ system,” said Nate Schwartz, director of research and policy for Tennessee Department of Education. “What we’re trying to build is a system that allows districts to demonstrate through multiple measures the way they’re growing their students.”

Since the U.S. Department of Education first granted flexibility to states in 2012, federal education officials have worked with state and district leaders to provide relief from some provisions of the NCLB in exchange for taking bold actions to improve student outcomes and ensure equity for all students. The waiver is a recognition that the law was forcing schools and districts into one-size-fits-all solutions, regardless of the individual needs and circumstances in those communities.

In its application to extend its first waiver granted in 2012, state officials laid out their case for how they’re implementing the state’s comprehensive, state-designed plan to ensure student success and a continued commitment to college- and career-readiness. Currently, Tennessee students rank 46th in the nation in math proficiency levels, and 41st in reading.

In 2010, Tennessee leaders approved sweeping changes, such as higher academic standards and rigorous teacher evaluations, in response to the federal Race to the Top competition, for which the state won $500 million to fund its initiative. The state aims to increase reading and math proficiency rates to about 20 percent over five years and grow graduation rates to 90 percent — goals that are more realistic than those set by NCLB, officials say.

However, Tennessee’s First to the Top plan and its ability to manage the initiative “is significantly undermined by the current No Child Left Behind rules and regulations,” the application’s authors wrote, noting that last year about half of Tennessee schools failed to meet the NCLB benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, and about 80 percent this year.

“(NCLB) has set goals that virtually all educators across the state believe are unrealistic and unattainable,” the application reads. “We are asking educators to do the impossible, and then labeling them as failures when they don’t achieve those unrealistic outcomes.”

The application continues: “Tennessee has the goals, the plan and the political will to make rapid improvements in educational outcomes. We cannot allow outdated federal rules and regulations to stand in the way.”

In a news release announcing the waiver, U.S. Department of Education officials noted that Tennessee has set customized goals for achievement based on how students have done in the past. The newly approved waiver, they added, allows the state to acknowledge the growth of students who are farthest behind.

“My decision to renew approval of Tennessee’s ESEA flexibility request is based on my determination that ESEA flexibility is enabling Tennessee to carry out important reforms to improve student achievement in Tennessee and that this renewal is in the public interest,” wrote senior adviser Ann Whalen in her letter notifying McQueen of the waiver application’s approval.

Tennessee was one of seven states to receive waivers Thursday along with Alaska, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Utah. However, as a reward for its swift rollout of data-based teacher evaluations that have given other states pause, Tennessee is the only state receiving an additional four years of flexibility, the maximum number of years approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of Schools Superintendents, said the waiver is important to the state’s school districts and students. “It maintains strict accountability and transparency while recognizing real improvement by our students, teachers, schools and districts,” he said.

The ESEA is poised to be rebooted by the U.S. Congress this fall. However, McQueen told Board of Education members Thursday she does not believe the reauthorization would hinder changes approved in the waiver application.

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