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Sticks, carrots, and familiar policies in state's NCLB waiver plan

New York will get new terms for high- and low-performing schools — and new ways to define good and bad performance — under a proposed accountability plan designed to replace the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

The proposal, which was released in draft form late today and will be discussed by the Board of Regents on Monday, is the result of two months of planning in response to the Obama administration’s offer to waive some of the decade-old federal law’s requirements, including one that requires full proficiency by 2014. In exchange, states must to commit to prioritizing college readiness, setting guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations, and holding schools and districts accountable for their students’ performance on state tests.

Under the proposal, the bulk of the state’s testing program would remain unchanged. But elementary and middle school students would take science tests; the bar to be considered proficient on high school exams would be raised; and proficiency would be calculated not just by whether students met certain benchmarks, but by how much they improved.

Schools that fall short would not get extra funding to pay for tutoring services, an arrangement that has shown mixed results. Instead, they would get extra money to carry out more of the initiatives that the Regents themselves have endorsed, such as improving teacher training and revising curriculum standards.

Five percent of low-scoring schools would become Priority Schools and have to undergo federally mandated school overhaul approaches. Another 10 percent would become Focus Schools, and their districts would have to develop plans to improve them.

For the first time, school districts will be evaluated with the same scrutiny as schools were under NCLB.

“Since district policies often contribute to why schools have low performance for specific groups of students,” the proposal says, “districts must play a lead role in helping schools to address this issue.”

New York City, a district certain to house many Focus and Priority schools, will not be evaluated as one entire district, according to a provision. Instead, each of the city’s 32 districts would be evaluated based on state test scores for its schools.

The distinction was a point of debate at last month’s meeting and could be a bureaucratic headache for the Department of Education, which has spent years restructuring its school system in a way that has detached accountability from geography-based districts and the superintendents that run them.

In another first, top-performing schools would be named Reward Schools and given the chance for $100,000 state grants.

In many ways, the new accountability measures that the state is suggesting are not surprising. An advisory “think tank” that helped formulate the plan was circumscribed both by the Obama administration’s stringent guidelines and by the State Education Department’s own policy agenda. Commissioner John King emphasized from the start that he, not the think tank, would make the final determination about what would be proposed.

The broad alignment between the Obama administration’s education priorities and the state’s has made New York seem like a strong contender for a waiver. But recent setbacks in implementing new teacher evaluations, required to receive an NCLB waiver, could hurt the state’s chances.

NYSUT, the statewide union that sued to stop the state from increasing the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations, is planning a protest to coincide with the Regents meeting on Monday. The group says a coalition of union leaders, board members and superintendents from the 10 school districts that didn’t fully adopt new teacher evaluations last week will join to protest King’s decision to cut off their federal School Improvement Grants. New York City is one of the districts that lost out on the money, but district officials will not be a part of it.

The state is asking the Regents to approve the plan next week to enable 10 days of public comment in late January before finalizing the waiver application, which is due in mid-February.

The full proposal, which includes a before-and-after chart summarizing the changes, is below.

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