It’s starting to look like Tommy James and the Shondells might be the new theme music over at the Department of Education. Federal elementary and secondary education policy, already a barely cohesive mess because of the Administration’s waiver program, just got even more complicated. Yesterday Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that – if they apply for a waiver from their existing waiver – states can delay consequences for their new teacher evaluation systems until the 2016-2017 school year. He also announced a sensible step to avoid double-testing of students during the transition from existing assessments to new ones as part of Common Core implementation. Although critics are understandably jumping all over them for the waiver waivers, the Administration’s plan is not entirely indefensible because it’s aimed at a real issue. But it is quite problematic. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
– This is a big political win for AFT President Randi Weingarten. It’s not her moratorium per se but it’s awfully close and does hit the pause button on the issue that matters most to her members. And while state chiefs like Tony Bennett in Florida are already saying they won’t apply for a waiver waiver, many chiefs are going to face a lot of political pressure to do so. As you might expect there was a lot of behind the scenes back and forth on this and some state leaders worried this step would pull the rug out from under them. The Department is hoping that the September 30 deadline for applying for a waiver wavier will help stem the tide but the pressure will be intense.
– It’s hard to overstate how completely incoherent federal policy on K-12 schools now is. States are all over the place on timelines, approaches, and so forth with little rhyme or reason. Duncan keeps asserting that No Child Left Behind caused a lowering of standards (although there is no actual data to back up that claim) but even accounting for its problems it’s hard to argue the No Child policy – even in the era of the Spellings waivers – was not cleaner than what we have now. Will the dual incentives of a seriously messy policy and the legions of doubters about their ability to pass a bill to fix that inspire Congress to get past its dysfunction?
– For states that do take a waiver wavier (and it doesn’t apply everywhere because some states are already on this timeline) this evaluation holiday will introduce all kinds of awkwardness into state policy. For instance teachers who have been identified as ineffective might nonetheless not be removed as a result of this waiver from waiver language. And in some states we’ll again see the problem of having accountability for the students but without corresponding accountability for the adults. There is not much in the way of reciprocal accountability in these new waiver waivers.
– But any big policy change requires some adjustment and flexibility during implementation. The question is whether Duncan had to approach it like this and paint some state leaders into a corner or whether there were other ways to package the policy in a more narrow way. In other words, help states that genuinely need it, without an essentially carte blanche approach. For instance a high bar and evidence of progress? The Department will claim it is a high bar but the criteria are minimal. At this point only the credulous buy Duncan’s argument that the last round of waivers somehow increased accountability. Can anyone now?
– On the larger picture, moving up to the cliff on accountability and backing away is a predictable pattern in education. So at some level this is hardly surprising. Still, it’s absurd that in a field that is so highly labor-dependent getting evaluations put in place is such a three ring circus. That, more than anything else, is pretty telling.