California

Q&A with Rick Miller: California district waivers mean tougher accountability, but less focus on tests

Dozens of states have been granted waivers from No Child Left Behind since 2011, when the Obama administration adopted a more flexible approach to the Bush-era act. When the Department of Education denied California’s waiver application in December 2012, a consortium of eight districts pushed for autonomy from the state. Dubbed CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, the districts developed their own set of strategies, emphasizing shared accountability and a holistic approach to student evaluation.

Rick Miller

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan granted CORE a waiver from certain aspects of No Child Left Behind, the first waiver for districts rather than a state. CORE districts now have the flexibility to spend approximately $110 million in Title I funding as they see fit. CORE Executive Director Rick Miller took inspiration from Michael Fullan, the mastermind behind world-renowned schools in Ontario, whose significant population of English language learners resembles California’s. The Hechinger Report talked to Miller about what the waiver will mean for the nearly 1.2 million students in CORE districts, including Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Francisco Unified, Sanger Unified, and Santa Ana Unified.

Question: What is the most important aspect of the waiver for schools in CORE districts?

Answer: I think number one is the ability to be flexible with the dollars that you have, and the ability to be more thoughtful with money for kids, rather than being constricted by a mandate. For example, several of our districts will no longer be using federal funding for transportation [to send struggling students to stronger-performing districts], but some are also committed to continuing to use that funding for transportation. There’s not one answer across the board; it’s the flexibility of knowing what’s best for your kids.

Q: Does CORE have different plans for how each district will move forward, or is there one CORE plan being implanted?

A: A little of both. There is not one single plan across the districts, but there are things holding us all together. We all agree on an accountability model, but how we respond to that and deal with that in each district will be different. Some things are still being discussed and will be worked out over the course of the school year. For example, we’ve all agreed that student engagement is an important indicator of teacher effectiveness, but what should matter in engaging students is what we have to decide by the end of this year. One of the unique advantages of CORE is that while each district will develop its own strategies, we’ll also be sharing with each other what works and what isn’t successful. We’ll continue to learn from each other and will be able to help those that are struggling more.

Q: Most of the districts included in CORE are large and urban, but not Sanger Unified; how does the waiver account for these different needs?

A: When you close the door in an urban non-poverty district versus a poverty district, there are clearly differences. But when we pair districts with the same issues, for example a school with many English language learners in Fresno versus a school in LA with many language learners, the issues are similar. Good instruction is good instruction, but you can’t divorce it totally from demographics.

Q: How does CORE’s plan better prepare students for college and career?

A: The number one thing is more robust accountability. There’s more to accountability than just a score on a test. The reality is that when you narrow what you hold people accountable for, they’re only accountable for those areas. So, broadening that accountability to culture and climate of a school, taking into account whether kids are safe, assessing non-cognitive skills like grit and resilience – when you look at all of these in total and ask a district to pay attention to the whole child, and the school responds to what each child needs, it will amount to better preparedness for college and career.

We have kids who are graduating high school with relative proficiency on tests but still need remediation when they get to college; this speaks to a disconnect. We have a lot of kids, far too many kids of color, who go to college but don’t persist in college. This is largely not an academic issue. There is a lot going on in the lives of children that goes into whether or not they persist in college, and there’s a lot of research showing this, which is why we’re trying to emphasize the whole child.

Q: How can you measure and improve non-cognitive skills like grit and resilience?

A: We’ve actually said it’s going to take a year or longer to figure out ways of measuring grit and resilience. There are surveys that get at the notion. But it’s less difficult for us to envision how to measure grit and resilience than to figure out how to build curriculum around how to improve it. When you find out that you need to improve students’ grit and resilience, how do you do that?

Q: The waiver frees Local Education Agencies from the so-called Highly Qualified Teacher requirements of NCLB, and from having to develop “Improvement Plans” for not meeting requirements for 2 consecutive years. Why is this good for students and teachers?

A: The NCLB “Highly Qualified” measurement is based on credentialing, and on the number of years someone has been teaching, but doesn’t factor in effectiveness in dealing with students. Longevity matters but it doesn’t guarantee effectiveness. We’re being more nuanced in our evaluation of what makes a highly qualified teacher.

Q: CORE’s initial waiver application states that your plan “is rooted in shared learning and responsibility for student achievement.” Who should be sharing responsibility for student achievement?

A: We should all share responsibility. Michael Fullan’s book talks about the moral imperative to care how kids are doing in school and help them improve – that’s the ethos that runs our system. So, Chris Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified cares about kids in LA and in El Segundo and in Humboldt. Schools will be reviewing schools and partnering with each other. We fully expect lots of cross-district collaboration. A great school in LA could be mentoring a school in Fresno, or you could have a high-performing school in Fresno partnered with a struggling school in Long Beach.  Michael is helping us with this, particularly with training. Just because you are a high-performing school doesn’t mean you know how to teach what you do; we need to train folks to be trainers.

Q: Did NCLB allow schools to evade responsibility for some students? 

A: Under No Child Left Behind in California, in many schools, if you had less than 100 kids in a certain subgroup then you weren’t responsible for that subgroup. In a high school of 2,000 kids with 99 African Americans, when you produced your results, you didn’t have to say how the African Americans in that school did, so those kids could be struggling and the school could appear to be doing fine. We dropped that number to 20, so you’ll have thousands more children being accounted for.

Q: What does CORE mean by emphasizing capacity-building over accountability, and how does your strategy differ from NCLB’s?

A: NCLB was more about sanctions and saying, “you are not improving,” with no system of “how do you get better?” Evaluation systems at their heart need to be fundamentally, “how do we improve?” If I’m a teacher in the classroom, I want to get better. It’s really orienting our entire system as, “how do we get better at what we do?”

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