Late last month, Connecticut was one of eight states to receive a Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility Waiver from the U.S. Department of Education (see video.)
The 8 states will join the 11 that were approved in February 2012. During this second round, there were 26 applicants.
The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) applied for the flexibility waiver back in February with the intent to free the state from adhering to federal mandates borne out of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB.)
What does the waiver mean?
For starters, those states granted the waiver can craft more individualized educational reform based on specific needs without the hammer of the restrictive federal program's goals and more importantly, the punishments for failing to meet the NCLB standards. Districts also now have more flexibility in the usage of Title I funding.
Connecticut's application was built around 4 key principles:
- transitioning to college and career ready standards and assessments;
- developing systems of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support;
- evaluating and supporting teacher and principal effectiveness;
- reducing duplication and unnecessary burden.
These principles "capture the education reform activities Connecticut is genuinely and vigorously in the process of pursuing," said Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.
"From Common Core implementation to low-performing school turnaround to educator evaluation, we were able to convey Connecticut’s authentic agenda in our presentation to the federal Education Department," Pryor added. "We're proud that our state's application has been approved and we're very grateful for the flexibility Secretary Duncan is enabling us to exercise in pursuit of our Connecticut agenda."
The original intention of NCLB was to ensure that all students nationally achieved a minimal level of academic competency.
However, under the previously mandated standards of NCLB, Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent Dr. William McKersie says that “75% of the schools in country would have been out of compliance by 2014,” which is why the waiver system came into play.”
Last week Commissioner Pryor called a meeting for all Connecticut Superintendents in East Harford to discuss the implications of the waiver for the state, highlighting that:
- sanctions imposed for not meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) - eliminated immediately;
- introduction of a new accountability system based on performance indexes.
While the removal of the repercussions for not meeting AYP such as no longer requiring open choice to students is significant, McKersie believes that the larger message is the introduction of the “accountability system” that will be used for tracking schools and districts performance.
The new system will base School and District Performance Indexes (SPI and DPI) on a score of 0 to 100 derived from a variety of new means to gauge and track assessed progress and report it publicly.
The new goal is goal
One of the more major shifts is that previously “proficient“ was used as a goal for districts on state testing. In addition, districts gained credit for moving students from basic to proficient. With the new system comes a new standard: “goal”, a higher performance level, is now the target thus increasing the benchmark.
Schools will now also received credit from moving their students from below basic to basic, basic to proficient and proficient to goal capturing broader progress.
In addition to standardized test results, school progress will now also be measured by high school graduation rates.
Greenwich, along with other CT districts, will receive its DPI within the next week or two, according to McKersie who explains that the initial scores will be based on a 3 year average to set a “baseline” for schools and districts.
It is this new accountability system that McKersie calls a “gigantic step forward.”
Maximizing Past Experiences
McKersie says that he is “very impressed” by the plan put forward by the CSDE; this is high praise coming from the new Superintendent who just 2 years ago was one of 70 nationally selected peer reviewers chosen out of over 2000 applicants for a role in reviewing state applications in a national competition.
McKersie not only reviewed the 1st and 2nd rounds of the Race to the Top Grant Competition, he was then selected to Chair the state finalist interview in both rounds.
McKersie believes that he was selected as a peer reviewer due to his knowledge of schools, students and policy as well as his 30 years of perspective on education. Through the process, McKersie got a firsthand look at some very “innovative” educational practices being utilized across the country.
This experience, which McKersie deems akin to an “intense graduate course,” will hopefully enable the new schools chief to maximize the opportunity Greenwich gained through the flexibility of the federal waiver.
During last Monday’s statewide Superintendents’ meeting, McKersie said that Commissioner Pryor made a “beeline” for him. “The Commissioner is thinking about growth “and “pushing the standards up,” praised McKersie. The new tenor is “beating the drum” of making the standards higher.
Greenwich is "right in the mix"
Out of the State Department of Education comes what they refer to as an “ambitious yet achievable” state goal for every school to reach an SPI of 88. McKersie says that despite what many think, Greenwich is "right in the mix with highly performing districts” in DRG A and B and stating that we perform competitively.
When it comes to comparison to other “high performing” and “high octane” districts, says McKersie that the district's achievements is “what gets lost in conversation.”
McKersie calls Greenwich a “sophisticated town” and believes that our data should be used “how it is suppose to be used.” With respect to the goal of 88, “we ran preliminary numbers this week, and we are right there at the goal.” However, where Greenwich falls short is within the sub-groups, which is where the school district’s greatest challenge will occur.
Both Connecticut as a state and here at home in Greenwich, there have been struggles to effectively deal with the achievement gap despite programs, regulations and spending.
“Greenwich has to understand that the achievement gap is a nationwide issue,” says McKersie. He acknowledges that the Town generously spends a lot of money on its public education system, but rhetorically asks if the district is utilizing the “best and most coherent set of programs?”
First, with the “framework of the Common Core,” believes McKersie, our “instructional units need to be “aligned with these standards.” The common core is a new standard of educational content and performances by grade which were introduced as part of the state’s education reform.
A big priority for all of us is a superb quality for all the students,” states McKersie. “People chase the achievement gap,” and McKersie is looking at the educational experience as “high quality” and “more rigorous” for all, including the components of the town’s magnet programs. “Our focus has to be common core. That has to be the floor not the ceiling.”
The CSDE will hold a Student Assessment Forum mid-August in Cromwell during which the new school performance metrics among other topics will be discussed.
“What does the State really need and want?”
With waiver in hand, Greenwich has another challenge looming on the horizon; racial imbalance.
McKersie says that the administration is working hard to develop an “active work plan” through enrollment analysis and fact finding both internally and interfacing with other districts facing similar issues. With the mantra that “demographics are not destiny,” the school chief is set to meet with the Commissioner Pryor on August 6th to discuss Greenwich’s challenge.