CORE districts hoping for July NCLB waiver approval

A group of California districts seeking relief from federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act have proposed implementing its new system for school improvement this fall, assuming its updated application is approved by July, officials said Tuesday.

Included in the California Office to Reform Education's - or CORE's - proposal is a new school accountability formula that would, in essence, replace existing state and federal performance scores.

In addition, local educational agencies joining CORE's waiver program would choose one of two options for measuring principal and teacher effectiveness - a move aimed at satisfying key requirements of the Obama administration.

Under our model, the consequence of struggle is technical assistance by peer educators who are committed to success for every child," Michael Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified - one of the nine CORE districts participating in waiver request - said in a conference call Tuesday. "This is a rather dramatic paradigm shift away from the compliance-based accountability system to one driven by the collective and individual responsibility to adhere to these new set of principles."

Since offering the flexibility program last year, the U.S. Department of Education has approved 37 state waivers. The 10 remaining applications have either been denied or are still under review.

California's initial application was rejected, and state officials recently announced an effort to reapply this year had been abandoned. Failure to include a teacher evaluation plan, based in part on student test scores, is believed to be the major stumbling block.

In February, CORE submitted its own waiver application - becoming the first non-state entity to do so - and recently received feedback from the federal department's peer-review team, which wanted more specifics on various aspects of the coalition's plan.

It is those details that make up the group's new School Quality Improvement System, "a holistic approach to school improvement" aimed at closing achievement gaps and preparing all students for college and careers, according to the authors.

At the heart of the new system is the School Quality Improvement Index, designed to provide a quantitative measure of school-level performance - similar to California's Academic Performance Index, or API, and the federal Annual Yearly Progress, or AYP, both of which are based solely on student test scores.

The CORE application creates a new formula comprised of 60 percent academic components such as test scores, graduation rates and persistence rates, and 20 percent social/emotional factors such as suspension and/or expulsion rates and chronic absenteeism. The remaining 20 percent of the formula would be based on school culture/climate indicators - stakeholder input as well as English language learner and special education student entry and exit data.

What this means, ultimately, said CORE leaders, is that districts participating in the group's waiver program would receive three accountability measure scores: the state API score, the NCLB AYP score and the "new AYP" score created under the waiver's School Quality Improvement Index. There would be no consequences, however, for waived districts not meeting API or the old NCLB AYP targets.

While admitting that the addition of a third accountability model would likely create confusion, CORE officials said they have created a communications plan to help educate school communities about the new system.

Another key aspect of CORE's School Quality Improvement System is the method for evaluating educator effectiveness. With approval of this waiver, participating districts would have the option of choosing from two student growth models: One would include student growth as a defined percentage - in this case, a minimum of 20 percent student growth on test scores; the other, based on a recently-adopted Massachusetts model, is a multi-step "trigger" system using multiple measures of student learning, growth and achievement, as well as judgments based on observation and artifacts of professional practice.

Under the second option, according to the CORE application, "misalignment between teacher/administrator professional practice and student performance will initiate dialogue to identify why a discrepancy between scores exists, followed by district action in the interest of professional development of the teacher, which could include, among other options, an addendum to the review of professional practice or a one-year improvement plan."

Under option one, student growth will be calculated using a model to be developed by the CORE board of directors in the 2014-15 school year. "However, if an LEA currently uses or seeks to use another high-quality student growth model, the LEA will have the opportunity to apply to the CORE Board for the option to use an alternative method, provided the LEA provides a strong research-based rationale," the revised waiver application said.

There are many more aspects to the CORE application, including the group's plan to lower to 20 the minimum number of students necessary to be recognized as a subgroup in the School Quality Improvement Index - that's compared to the minimum requirement of 100 under current federal and state accountability calculation requirements.

This means that across the nine participating CORE districts, schools will be accountable for reporting progress on nearly 200,000 additional students, a large percentage of who are African American, Latino, English learning or students with disabilities, officials said.

The group's organizers have once again invited non-CORE LEAs to join the waiver, provided they agree to implement its terms.

"We welcome any district that wants to join us in the effort," Fresno's Hanson said. "The only price of admission is that a district needs to be willing to share their data, their expertise and their openness to use the right drivers like we are planning to do, and to join us in the School Quality Improvement System."

For more information about CORE and its waiver application, visit: coredistricts.org

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