I have been making the point that Department of Education Commissioner Barry, working with many state actors over years, put herself in a position to negotiate a very good No Child Left Behind waiver deal for New Hampshire (here and here for two examples). Our New Hampshire media haven’t made much of a point of this, but here in yesterday’s Foster’s is a thorough and interesting report on the impact of the waiver on educators in our schools. A few key quotes:
DOVER — Local school districts are optimistic about a waiver recently granted to the state that relieves schools from adhering to some of the strict provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Instead of fretting over being labeled as a failing school district come 2014 and the reductions in funding associated with this title, New Hampshire schools now have the ability to develop comprehensive plans that target trouble areas in education and close gaps in achievement levels.
According to Heather Gage, Division of Instruction director and chief of staff for the N.H. Department of Education, more than 75 percent of Granite State schools would have been labeled as failing by 2014.
“That’s a terrible lie that we are telling the public, because we know that 75 percent of our schools are not failing,” said Gage.
“There was a recognition that this waiver could allow us to help schools more while providing schools the opportunity to focus more on student learning and less on the negative perception that people may have had as a result of the failing rating these schools would have received,” said Gage.“That’s a terrible lie that we are telling the public, because we know that 75 percent of our schools are not failing,” said Gage.
In September of 2012, New Hampshire applied for a waiver. Many school districts — both K-12 schools and college systems — as well as education associations and boards sent letters of support when N.H. initially requested the waiver.
Just three months ago, the state received a letter of approval from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan granting the waiver to the Granite State.
Duncan lauded N.H. for submitting its request for a waiver, noting that it shows the state’s commitment to improving academic achievement as well as the quality of instruction. “I am encouraged by the innovative thinking and strong commitment to improving achievement for all students that is evident in New Hampshire’s request,” Duncan wrote in his approval letter to N.H. Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry.
Duncan’s letter goes on to note the state’s request for a waiver met four key principles, including demonstrating it has college and career-ready expectation for students, a high-quality plan that implements support for all Title I districts, the development of an evaluation system for educators that supports student achievement, as well as a commitment to reducing duplication within districts that puts unnecessary burdens on schools.
“This waiver provides our state the opportunity to focus resources on those initiatives that will move our state forward in the best interest of children,” reads a statement from Commissioner Barry.
The waiver outlines several principles that schools would need to implement, including evaluating and removing a school’s principal if need be, reviewing the quality of staff and preventing ineffective teachers from becoming a part of the district. The waiver also requires schools designate more time for students to learn and teachers to collaborate, align curriculums with college and career standards, use data to guide instruction, create a safe and positive school environment, and amplify the opportunities for student and family engagement within districts.
Although very involved, Jeni Mosca, superintendent of schools for Somersworth and Rollinsford, said she is very excited to break free from the “one-size-fits-all” approach of NCLB.
“The intent of NCLB is great, but it has never allowed for differentiation,” said Mosca. “In education and in life in general, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. That’s been the biggest issue.”
Rather than grouping the majority of the state’s public schools together because of their inability to meet 100 percent of NCLB’s rigorous requirements, Mosca said she is looking forward to the state’s newly-granted ability to focus on priority schools individually.
“The state will now be allowed to work on the initiatives they need to for these schools to succeed and send some extra dollars their way to really help fix things,” she said.
According to Mosca, School Administrative Unit 56, which covers the towns of Somersworth and Rollinsford, would receive a failing ranking by 2014 under the No Child Left Behind Act.
“I don’t think any school is really failing at what they are doing, though,” said Mosca. “I think we are all trying to the best of our ability to do what’s best for the kids.”
Mosca noted that SAU 56 will spend this school year and next taking a holistic approach to addressing the needs of children who are struggling. Rather than relying solely on NECAP scores, which is the main component that NCLB uses to base its rankings, Mosca said educators now have the ability through the waiver to focus on multiple educational components rather than just one test.
“Nowhere in the world do things rely on one single component,” she said. “ … There are so many factors that weigh in to a student’s ability to become engaged in education.”
Antonio Fernandes, interim-superintedent of schools for Dover, said he is overjoyed that New Hampshire has been granted a waiver that frees local school districts from meeting certain provisions of NCLB. Although he recognized the law was developed with good intent, Fernandes voiced his concern over the strict benchmarks schools are required to meet through NCLB.
“Schools initiate action plans to make improvements, yet No Child Left Behind continues to raise the bar despite our efforts to improve,” he said. “It’s like dangling a carrot in front of you that you can’t reach.”
Fernandes said the waiver will allow Dover’s school district to adopt programs that will better serve students when it comes to assessments. He said Dover is in the process of adopting a program known as Smarter Balance, a computer-based assessment model that will ultimately replace NECAP testing in Garrison City schools.
Fernandes explained if a student struggles with a specific section of a subject, the computer tracks that and lowers the difficulty of the competency so that students are rated on a more level playing field.
“This self-adjusting mechanism is bringing us in a direction that I think every school system should go to,” he said.
As for the component of the waiver requiring schools to re-evaluate the methods used for teacher assessments, Fernandes recognized it may be difficult at first to develop a new evaluation tool. Still, he stressed the benefit of making these changes as a result of the waiver far outweighs the consequences of not doing so and continuing to fight to meet the strict standards associated with NCLB.
“I’ve yet to come across a part of the waiver that truly concerns me,” said Fernandes.
Steve Zadravec, assistant superintendent of schools for Portsmouth, said he feels that no longer being held to some of the strictest provisions of NCLB will allow the state to look at what’s working in school districts and continue to build on that.
“Before, districts were being pushed to focus on small, discrete areas of education where things weren’t going well and not focus on areas where we were succeeding,” said Zadravec. “I think the waiver will certainly allow us the flexibility we have been looking for.”
Although Portsmouth would not have earned a failing rating by 2014 through NCLB, Zadravec said he is still happy to hear his district has more time to continue focusing on the positive gains schools have made as opposed to worrying over whether or not they would fall short of the law’s requirements.
Like Fernandes, Zadravec said he too has no concerns with the elements outlined in the waiver granted to the Granite State.
“By providing them this freedom, I think it’s a way to spur innovation in schools,” he said.