Duncan to Congress: Giving States Flexibility is Working

Secretary Duncan testifies at Senate Hearing

Secretary Arne Duncan testified on Capitol Hill Thursday during a hearing on ESEA flexibility. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

States and their schools are breaking free from the restrictions of No Child Left Behind and pursuing new and better ways to prepare and protect all students, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a Senate committee Thursday.

In a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Duncan promoted the value of providing flexibility to states under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which the Department of Education began offering in 2011. Duncan said that granting states new flexibility through waivers was not his first choice—he would have preferred that Congress reauthorize, or amend the law instead. But in light of congressional gridlock over reauthorization, Duncan said that he was “not willing to stand by idly and do nothing while students and educators continue to suffer under NCLB.”

NCLB is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). And Duncan said that NCLB has become a well-intended, but overly-prescriptive law that created incentives to lower standards, encouraged teaching to the test, mislabeled many schools as failures, and prescribed a one-size-fits-all accountability system that failed to support local solutions and innovation. With ESEA years overdue for congressional reauthorization, the Obama Administration sent Congress a Blueprint for Reform of ESEA in 2010.

Nearly two years later, after Congress failed to authorize ESEA, the Administration offered states the chance to pursue waivers to NCLB in September 2011. Duncan told the committee that “providing waivers was always, always our plan B.”

In his testimony, and during questions from the Committee, Duncan outlined in detail the ways in which the waiver approach, or “ESEA Flexibility,” – has strengthened accountability for at-risk students, improved evaluation and professional development for teachers and principals, and unleashed a wave of  state-led innovation.

ESEA flexibility supports states and districts in replacing the “one-size-fits-all” interventions of NCLB and empowers states to tailor reforms that meet the needs of their students. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have been approved for ESEA flexibility, and nine states, plus Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, have pending requests.

Map of ESEA Flexibility

Duncan noted that states receiving NCLB flexibility “must demonstrate a commitment and capacity to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.”

Multiple Measures of Growth and Gain

One of the unintended effects of NCLB is that it provided incentives to lower academic standards—and 19 states actually lowered their standards after NCLB was enacted in 2001. The law’s narrow measures for school progress—annual reading and math test scores and high school graduation rates—also prompted teaching to the test and an overly simplistic model for assessing school progress. “Under No Child Left Behind there was far too much focus on a single test score,” Duncan said. “I’m more interested in outcomes,” Duncan added. “If you have the best third grade test score in the world but 50 percent of your students are dropping out of high school, you are not changing student’s lives. You can’t get a job with a third grade test score.”

Under ESEA flexibility, states are using multiple measures of growth and gain in student learning, rather than NCLB’s narrow measures. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Duncan. “All of the leadership, all of the creativity, is coming from the states.”

Multiple Measures of Growth and Gain Graphic

Better Serving At-Risk Students

At the hearing, Duncan said he was surprised to learn that under NCLB, low-income and minority students, English learners, and students with disabilities were  “invisible” because schools were not held accountable for the performance of subgroups of students if there were not enough students in their subgroup to “count” under state rules. Duncan explained during his testimony that under flexibility, these students are no longer invisible, which “is a significant step in the right direction,” he said.

At Risk Bar Chart

One example of how flexibility is helping at-risk students can be found in Arkansas. Under ESEA flexibility, Arkansas is now holding more than 1,000 schools accountable for subgroups that weren’t accountable under NCLB. Across all states receiving waivers to date, at least 9,000 additional schools are now accountable for subgroups for which they weren’t accountable before.

Duncan pointed out that states with waivers have set aggressive performance targets for all subgroups. They are using performance targets to tailor local interventions, rather than as a tool to label schools as failures. Waiver states are expecting progress for all subgroups–but much faster rates of progress for those that are furthest behind.

Recognizing and Rewarding Schools for Progress and Success

Under ESEA flexibility, states are recognizing a school’s student growth and success–and supporting interventions that work. Secretary Duncan cited the example of Columbus Park Preparatory Academy in Worcester, Mass. Under NCLB, the school was deemed to be among the bottom 20 percent of schools in the state, despite the fact that it was making significant progress in boosting achievement for traditionally low-performing students. “That school’s not a failure,” Duncan said. “That school’s a success … think of how demoralizing it is to teachers who are working so hard to be labeled a failure when you are seeing improvement each year.”

Supporting Teacher and Principal Effectiveness

“Talent matters tremendously in education,” Duncan said in talking about the new and far more robust evaluation systems that states are building under flexibility. States are developing evaluation systems that go far beyond NCLB’s minimum “highly qualified teacher” standards, and are using systems that measure and support effective teaching and leadership based on multiple measures, including student growth. “Great principals lead great schools. Great teachers do miraculous things with children,” he said.

Supporting Teacher and Principal Effectiveness Pie Chart

Duncan described how Tennessee has been at the forefront of improving teacher and principal evaluation systems with the input from 17,000 teachers and administrators. The state also continues to receive feedback so it can refine and improve its evaluation system. “I have yet to meet a teacher who is scared of accountability,” Duncan said. They just want it to be fair. They want it to be honest.

Providing States with Flexibility to Move Forward With Reform

The federal role in education is relatively narrow, Duncan told the committee. “What’s exciting about ESEA flexibility, is that states are leading the way in strengthening education for all children,” he said. In explaining the federal role, Duncan said:

The federal government does not serve as a national school board … We don’t dictate curriculum, levy school assessments, or open and close schools. We don’t specify the content of academic standards or negotiate teachers’ contracts. We do have a responsibility to set a high bar to protect the interests of students, especially at-risk students. But how to reach that bar, I believe, should be left to the states.

Duncan concluded his testimony by noting that in a time of partisan rancor, ESEA waivers had an unusual bipartisan appeal in statehouses across the country. He observed that “we approach this work with both a tremendous sense of excitement, coupled with a real sense of humility.”

In the end, Duncan said, he didn’t have “a moment’s doubt” that state flexibility “is a major improvement for children and for adults over NCLB.” But he stressed the need to learn from any mistakes in the waiver process, correct them quickly, and share that learning across the country. “We can never let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he cautioned.” And that is what we have done for far too long in education.” Ensuring a world-class education for every child, Duncan added, “is both a demanding challenge and an urgent imperative for our nation, our communities, and our children.”

Click here to read Secretary Duncan’s prepared testimony, and click here to watch a video of Secretary Duncan’s opening statement and the entire hearing.

Read the Department’s recently released publications highlighting ESEA flexibility.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Department Releases New Publications Highlighting ESEA Flexibility

With 34 states and the District of Columbia approved for ESEA flexibility, the U.S. Department of Education released a series of new publications this week, describing the flexibility program and the ways in which some participating states are advancing important education reforms.

ESEA Flex LogoESEA flexibility enables states and districts to maintain a high bar for student achievement while better targeting resources to schools and students most in need of additional support. The publication series includes a brochure and fact sheets on topics that relate to five priority areas under ESEA flexibility (pdf files):

  1. Continuing to expose and close achievement gaps;
  2. Advancing accountability for graduation rates;
  3. Turning around the lowest-performing schools;
  4. Protecting school and student accountability; and
  5. Supporting teachers, leaders, and local innovation.

The Department announced voluntary ESEA flexibility in September 2011 in the absence of a reauthorization – or congressional update – to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The most recent update to the federal education law – the No Child Left Behind Act – was due for reauthorization in 2007, but has governed a changing national education landscape for more than a decade. ESEA flexibility allows states and districts to replace the “one-size-fits-all,” prescriptive provisions of NCLB with state-led reforms tailored to address their most pressing education challenges.

For more information about ESEA flexibility and to access the new brochure and fact sheets, please visit this Web site.

Tiffany Taber is senior communications and events manager at the U.S. Department of Education

The State of Education

Arne_Press_Club

Secretary Duncan spoke on the state of education at the National Press Club. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

“States and districts, schools and communities are driving more change than ever before,” Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. “Educators at every level are being more and more creative — pairing good schools with struggling schools, creating smaller, more manageable districts, and building partnerships between both high schools and colleges – and between colleges and industries,” he said.

During his speech and follow-up question and answer, Duncan reflected on the Department’s recent Education Drives America cross-country back-to-school bus tour, as well as explained how far we’ve come in last three years, and how far the country still needs to go.

On Flexibility Under No Child Left Behind

Above all there is enormous enthusiasm at the state level to build more effective accountability systems through the waiver process we began last fall – and now affecting more than 60 percent of the schoolchildren in the country in 33 states – with about 10 more in the pipeline.

Waivers are not a pass on accountability – but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable. In exchange for adopting high standards and meaningful systems of teacher support and evaluation:

  • States set ambitious but achievable targets for every subgroup.
  • More children at risk – who were invisible under NCLB – are now included in state-designed accountability systems — including low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.
  • Finally, local districts decide the most effective way to intervene in underperforming schools, instead of applying rigid, top-down mandates from Washington.

On Race to the Top

Our job — for the last three and a half years – has been to support that work – to support bold and courageous reform at the state and local level. That’s what Race to the Top was all about.

We offered the biggest competitive grants in our department’s history – and 45 states raised standards and 33 states changed laws – in order to compete and accelerate student achievement. In a fascinating lesson on the power of incentives, we have seen as much reform in states that didn’t receive a nickel as in states that received tens of millions of dollars.

The fact that 45 states have now adopted internationally benchmarked, college and career-ready standards is an absolute game-changer. Virtually the entire country has voluntarily raised expectations for our children.

On Strengthening Teaching

I also know that some educators feel overwhelmed by the speed and pace of change. Teachers I speak with always support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better and hone their craft.

But some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair. They want an evaluation system that recognizes out-of-school factors and distinguishes among students with special needs, gifts and backgrounds.

They certainly don’t want to be evaluated based on one test score – and I absolutely agree with them. Evaluation must be based on multiple measures.

On Investing in Education

And the choice facing the country is pretty stark – we are at a fork in the road. Some people see education as an expense government can cut in tough economic times. President Obama sees education as an investment in our future – the best investment we can make, especially in tough economic times.

Duncan ended by calling for the country to unite behind the cause of public education and realize that the solutions won’t come from one party or ideology, but that all of us need to challenge and hold ourselves accountable.

Read the entire speech here, and watch the video from C-SPAN here.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital engagement at the U.S. Department of Education

ED Mailbag: Arne on Standardized Testing and 360° Accountability

Secretary Arne Duncan recently responded to two questions he received via social media.

He first addressed a question from Nate concerning the overreliance on standardized testing. Duncan explained that No Child Left Behind places too much weight on one test, leading to a narrow curriculum. With waivers from NCLB, more than half of the states are creatively moving away from single test scores to other critical factors in closing the achievement gap, like graduation rates and career readiness.

Another inquirer, Monica, asked about how parents and students – not just teachers – can be held accountable for student success. Duncan agreed wholeheartedly and said schools need “360 degree accountability.”

“I tell students all the time it is their job to get a great education,” said Duncan. “Nobody can do that for them.” Tennessee and other states are developing new, innovative systems for measuring parental influence on student progress, models that Duncan said he will be watching closely. “We have to stop pointing fingers,” Secretary Duncan said. “Accountability has to be shared responsibility.”

Watch the video:


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Click here to become a fan of Arne on Facebook and here to follow him on Twitter.

Alexandra Strott is a student at Middlebury College and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Approved: Eight More States Get NCLB Waivers

Secretary Duncan announces new waivers in Connecticut.

Secretary Duncan announces new waivers in Connecticut.

Joined by state and local leaders, educators and students, Secretary Duncan announced earlier today at Connecticut’s historic capitol, that the Obama Administration approved eight additional states for flexibility from key provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The eight states (Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island), brings the total number of states to receive waivers to 19, with an additional 18 applications still under review.

States who receive flexibility under NCLB agree to develop state-level plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership.

Resources:

States and Education Community Weigh In on First Round of NCLB Flexibility

President Obama and Secretary Duncan at the White House announcement

President Barack Obama, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, delivers remarks on education reform and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind, in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama announced yesterday that ten states have agreed to implement bold education reforms and will receive flexibility from No Child Left Behind.

These ten states will now have the flexibility needed to raise student achievement standards, improve school accountability, and increase teacher effectiveness. The ten states approved for flexibility are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Here’s what Governors, state education chiefs and education stakeholders are saying about the announcement:

Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond: “The waiver really supports our state system of continuous improvement and allows schools and districts to focus their energies on one accountability system designed to elevate student achievement.”

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal: “This waiver will give Georgia the flexibility we need to pursue our goals of student achievement. We appreciate the cooperation of federal officials as we seek to prepare young Georgians for higher education and the jobs of tomorrow.”

Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett: “I applaud the U.S. Department of Education for providing states the flexibility they need to drive academic achievement for all students. Indiana’s commitment to comprehensive reform has enabled us to be among the first states receiving a waiver.”

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear: “This federal flexibility opens a new chapter in the Commonwealth’s work to ensure a well-educated citizenry.”

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius: “Now, with the support of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Duncan, we will be able to better address those inequities and create an educational system that better serves our every Minnesota student.”

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman: “It’s just not helpful or realistic to label schools and districts as failing, especially when they are making significant academic gains. This waiver is all about approving achievement for all students while closing persistent achievement gaps.”

National Education Association: “We’re encouraged by President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s efforts to provide NCLB waivers for relief,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “These states have committed to working with teachers, parents, and other community stakeholders to implement changes designed to better support students. Our members look forward to being part of a true partnership with school and community leaders to think creatively about how to help all students thrive with this new flexibility.”

National Association of State Boards of Education: “States and state boards of education are at the fore of innovation in education as they continue to develop and improve policies to help every student become college- or career-ready. It is heartening to see the Administration recognizes this hard work by starting to relieve states of the burden imposed on them by a law that set out worthy but perhaps unrealistic goals.”

The Education Trust: “In this new approach, the federal government takes responsibility for ensuring that states set meaningful goals for all groups of students — particularly low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners, all of whom are too often shortchanged by state and local education policy.”