By Barbara Grady

Oakland Unified School District, as well as school districts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and five other large cities, received federal approval on Tuesday to begin a new way of evaluating children’s educational success beyond just test scores.

In winning federal approval for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the law that ties federal funding to yearly improvements in standardized tests, the eight districts proposed instead to evaluate themselves on a range of criteria including graduation rates, school attendance gains, and even students’ social and emotional well-being, in addition to standardized test scores.

The OUSD and partners built their proposal around the Common Core curriculum — a new kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum that is being implemented in California and many states around the country — that focuses on critical thinking and problem solving, and places less emphasis on rote learning of facts. The districts, in fact, call their joint effort the California Office to Reform Education (CORE).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who inherited the No Child Left Behind law from the Bush administration but has never expressed much praise for it, called the plan by the eight districts innovative and “designed to promote deep student learning,” in prepared remarks when announcing the waiver’s approval.

“The Districts’ approved plan includes key accountability components that, when implemented, will surpass the rigor of the current NCLB system and provide an opportunity to expand innovative interventions and practices that can improve student achievement, rather than spending time and resources implementing NCLB’s one-size-fits-all mandates,” he said.

Among other things, the eight districts plan to make themselves accountable for fixing inequities among racial and demographic groups in things like discipline and academic achievement.

Oakland officials said the waiver lets them shift focus towards fully implementing their “Thriving Students” strategic plan, and not lose out on federal money if across-the-board test scores don’t reach specific milestones. The District typically receives about $6 million in Title I federal money each year. That money, according to NCLB, is tied to test scores. Specifically, the NCLB law requires that all students reach “proficiency” in math and English scores by 2014.

As of data released last winter, about 45 percent of OUSD students are proficient in math and English. Very few districts across the country, however, are near to hitting that 100 percent mark, and a common complaint against the law is that the test scores fail to capture all that is involved in academic achievement, or all that goes on in education.

Dr. Gary Yee, Oakland’s acting Superintendent said, “The waiver elements are consistent with our “Community Schools, Thriving Students” five-year plan, and we believe that it is far more progressive than the rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all’ direction of NCLB.”

The No Child Left Behind law has been in place since the presidency of George W. Bush, but has been unpopular among educators and officials in many states. Thirty-nine states have applied for, and received, waivers from the law by coming up with alternative plans. California tried, but failed, to get a waiver, largely because its proposal did not include linking progress to any standardized tests scores at all, bowing to demands of teachers’ unions.

The plan by the eight districts does include test scores, but many other criteria as well. OUSD describes the plan as considering “the needs of the whole child.” It draws on research by academics and by the state’s Task Force on Educator Excellence. The final goal is to prepare students to be ready for college, careers and life.

6 Responses

  1. Jim Mordecai

    Oakland School District never applied for the NCLB waiver. I believe a lawsuit will determine if the waiver given to the CORE group of eight superintendents was legal.

    A legal question is can the Secretary of Education turn down the State of California application for a waiver of NCLB and then turn to a group of superintendents from California and accept their application and negotiate the terms of the application leaving out both school districts and the State as a party to negotiating the terms of the application being accepted?

    In addition, some of the members of the CORE group never got a vote authorizing the application for a waiver from their school boards; Oakland didn’t.

    And that raises the question what is the legal status of granting an application for a waiver of Federal law when a district required to follow the law never authorized the submission of the application in the first place?

    There is division of responsibilities in a district and a school board has responsibility for setting policy not the district’s superintendent.

    The letter sent on Tuesday regarding the waiver was addressed to each CORE superintendent and not to the school boards of each district. The letter to the eight superintendents by the U.S. Department of Education announcing conditional granting of waiving certain parts of NCLB law; and signed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, listed at the end of the letter sending copies of the letter to the California Governor and the Superintendent but did not list sending copies to any of the eight districts the superintendents were from.

    To proceed with the waiver the Oakland School Board has to vote to ratify the waiver and by ratifying accept the terms and conditions or strings that Secretary Duncan made and that Superintendent Dr. Yee agreed to.

    If the Oakland School Board ratifies the waiver there is still another problem. A condition for being granted a waiver for the following year is that each CORE district must negotiate teacher/principal evaluation system that makes student test scores a part of the evaluation. If the evaluation system that is negotiated with local unions doesn’t satisfy the U.S. Department of Education, or if there is a failure to negotiate a settlement with principals and teachers on a new evaluation system, then the waiver will not be renewed.

    One more complication of this waiver is that the money the waiver makes available is strictly money for Title I students for after school tutoring. A small percentage of Federal Title I money something like 2 or 3 percent must be spent on transportation and tutoring with most, if not all of the money in reality being spent for tutoring. The contracts for Title I tutoring have already been approved for this coming school year. This means that there will be no money this year. And, there is only money that can be reallocated for next year if the District’s negotiation with teacher and principal unions is successful in getting the unions to march in step to the Arne Duncan drum beat.

  2. Len Raphael

    How would the new standards compare to the ones NYS implemented and resulted in large drops in test scores? Or have we not yet gotten to the testing part of the standards?

  3. Barbara Grady

    Jim – The waiver was granted to the districts. I can’t find anything in various public records that suggest it was granted to superintendents. Can you explain what you mean?

    And Len, I don’t believe new curriculum standards are part of the waiver. Rather, the new federal Common Core curriculum standards were accepted at the state level by California and by all but about five states. School districts are supposed to implement them in the 2013-2014 academic year. But the NCLB waiver doesn’t change the curriculum standards, to my understanding, just what can be used to measure a school’s or district’s success. The waiver brings in graduation rates, attendance rates, surveys of parent and students, and some other things as well as student test scores on standardized tests. Haven’t heard the standardized tests themselves differ because of the waiver.

  4. Jim Mordecai

    I have download part of the letter providing approval of the CORE requested waiver below. Note the approval letter is addressed to Oakland’s superintendent not to the Oakland School Board that never requested the waiver nor negotiated the terms of receiving the waiver.

    August 6, 2013

    Dr. Gary Yee
    Acting Superintendent
    Oakland Unified School District
    1025 Second Avenue
    Oakland, CA 94606

    Dear Dr. Yee:

    I am pleased to approve the Oakland Unified School District’s request for waivers under section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA), subject to the condition described below. The Oakland Unified School District is one of eight districts in California participating in the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) that, in collaboration with each other, submitted a joint request for flexibility with respect to certain ESEA requirements in exchange for committing to improve academic achievement and the quality of instruction for all elementary and secondary school students. I congratulate you on the approval of the Oakland Unified School District’s request.

    Our decision to approve the Oakland Unified School District’s request for waivers under section 9401 of the ESEA, subject to meeting the condition discussed below, is based on our determination that the Oakland Unified School District has: (1) demonstrated that it has college- and career-ready expectations for all students; (2) developed, and has a high-quality plan to implement, a system of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support for all schools in the district; (3) committed to developing, adopting, piloting, and implementing teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that support student achievement; and (4) provided an assurance that it will evaluate and, based on that evaluation, revise its administrative requirements to reduce duplication and unnecessary burden on schools. Our decision is also based on the Oakland Unified School District’s assurance that it will implement the high-quality plans and other elements as described in the joint request and in accordance with the timelines set forth in the request. In approving the joint request for waivers under section 9401 of the ESEA, we have taken into consideration comments from the California Department of Education and feedback from the panel of peer experts and Department staff who reviewed the joint request, as well as revisions that were made to the joint request in response to that feedback.

    I am granting the requested waivers to the Oakland Unified School District pursuant to my authority in section 9401 of the ESEA. A complete list of the statutory provisions being waived is set forth in the table enclosed with this letter. Consistent with section 9401 of the ESEA, I am granting waivers of these provisions through the end of the 2013–2014 school year.

    In the coming days, you will receive a letter from Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, containing additional information regarding the Oakland Unified School District’s implementation of these waivers, as well as information regarding monitoring and reporting. Please note that the Department will closely monitor your district’s implementation of the plans, systems, and interventions detailed in the joint request in order to ensure that all students continue to receive the assistance and supports needed to improve their academic achievement. Given the nature of the joint request, the Department will also work collaboratively with the California Department of Education and the California State Board of Education during the 2013-2014 school year to develop a plan to monitor the Oakland Unified School District’s implementation in future years, if the Department extends the approval of the waivers.

    Our decision to place a condition on the approval of the Oakland Unified School District’s request, as outlined in the following paragraph, is based on the fact that the eight districts that submitted the joint request have not yet finalized the school quality improvement system articulated in the request or their guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems. However, we have determined that, in the 2013–2014 school year, each of the eight districts, including the Oakland Unified School District, will increase the quality of instruction and improve the academic achievement of students consistent with the criteria for granting waivers under section 9401 of the ESEA while the districts continue to finalize their new school quality improvement system and guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.

  5. Jim Mordecai

    “I am pleased to approve the Oakland Unified School District’s request for waivers under section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA), subject to the condition described below.”

    The wording is “I am pleased to approve the Oakland Unified School District’s request for waivers…” But, Oakland School Board makes policy and it never approved the application. The Superintendent of Oakland cannot request a waiver of Federal Law on his own or in conjunction with 7 other superintendents. The previous Oakland Superintendent as part of CORE made the request in the name of the District but the District could not have made the request as that is a policy decision that had to be made in public under the Brown Act. Negotiations for the terms on which the application would be approved were not authorized by the Oakland School Board. Again the Oakland Superintendents were acting in the name of the district without authorization.

  6. David Singleton

    As an African-American OUSD parent with 4 children in these schools, I can tell you that I am absolutely tired of hearing/reading people talk about schools from their own interest group.

    The question is this: Is this waiver good for kids.


    If it’s not, why not. Don’t tell me about the Brown Act. You know what, my three brown sons and 1 brown daughter…. they are the “Brown Act”.

    I’m sitting here trying to figure out what could be wrong with these districts wanting to end racial inequities on academics and behavior? That sounds good to me.


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