School Beat: SFUSD Waived from NCLB via “CORE”

by Lisa Schiff on September 5, 2013

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is one of eight California districts that have been granted a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the disastrous federal education policy we’ve been suffering under since the George Bush presidency. Joined together in an umbrella organization called the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento City, San Francisco, Santa Ana, and Sanger unified school districts now no longer have to meet the impossible requirement that 100% of their students are proficient in reading and math by 2014. While the goal of ensuring that all students are achieving the most they can should of course the absolute focus of our public education system, the reality is that there are too many factors at play to achieve perfection. That oh-so-appealing 100% target is really little more than a cover for the lack of attention to the varied needs of actual students. Our children’s gifts and challenges require schools much more rigorous, rich and nuanced than NCLB’s focus on achieving statistically significant sets of test scores as opposed to transformative educational experiences.

Given the failure over the last several years to replace NCLB with a more meaningful policy, the Department of Education has turned to the granting of waivers at the state level as a strategy to reduce the carnage and political embarrassment when technically all schools and all states would be considered failures. Applications required states to present alternative approaches and assessments of academic performance and the use of Secretary Arnie Duncan’s favorite strategies—teacher evaluation based on student data systems and the use of Common Core State Standards in place of individual state standards—increased the likelihood of an application being accepted. Since California has not been successful in this regard, the CORE districts formed a collaborative effort to achieve the same end. To date an astonishing 41 states have been granted waivers in exchange for these alternative plans. If anyone in Congress is paying attention, that’s almost the entire nation.

At first glance, receiving a waiver from unrealistic NCLB requirements seems like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But there are problems with the entire waiver concept and cause for concern with CORE as well. As noted in this column back in 2011 when the option was first introduced, the waivers retain NCLB’s strong focus on testing to evaluate students and are really just a back-door strategy to implement the ideas Duncan and President Obama have failed to get written into national policy, including increased private market involvement and the establishment of vast data systems to track students and evaluate teachers, presumably through value-added models despite the fact that this approach has been roundly discredited. Just as troublesome though, is that the waivers represent a complete lack of political vision and commitment on the part of our elected officials to put a responsible, effective new education policy in place. The waiver strategy has eased the pressure on those in Washington and in the face of that weakness we are left with a fractured set of state approaches, not connected enough to even be seen as a patchwork. As scary as it might seem, calling the policy-makers’ bluff would have been a better gamble than this compromised position we’re in now. Seeing every state in the nation being labeled as failing educationally might have energized parents, students and teachers to demand real support for our schools.

Still, waivers are what we’ve been given and in San Francisco that waiver is now a reality to contend with. A motivated reader making it through CORE’s 400 plus approved waiver application might disagree with the above assessment and certainly several years into the game, a more complex approach to waivers has been taken with the alternative plans that have been accepted. For instance, the CORE model proposes a significant amount of partnering between districts even at the school level. Similarly, it aims to raise the profile of particularly strong teachers in order to support meaningful professional development based on the real experience of colleagues actually in the classroom. While CORE maintains the unfortunate focus on standardized testing, it gives what appears to be serious opportunities to include alternative assessments. In a similarly expanded view of children and education, there is a recognition of other factors important to a child’s development and academic performance, such as school climate factors and social and emotional issues.

But the example strengths listed above simply don’t outweigh the concerns. To being with, there is the expense of CORE itself. Because the waiver has been granted to a collaborative of districts and not a state, there is no existing framework to see to its implementation. Instead, an entirely new organization has been formed to provide this coordinating role, an organization that comes with all the typical expenses of any such enterprise. Given the overall lack of resources, adding a new administrative cost is hard to justify.

A second concern is the relationship to the new educational realities just now being put into place in California following the adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Since LCFF calls for a significantly greater degree of district level planning and accountability, hopefully a substantial amount of SFUSD’s CORE efforts will be able to serve dual purposes. But it’s worrisome to think that there will now be two absolutely brand-new financial and programmatic frameworks to be meshed together. Underscoring that worry is that neither CORE nor LCFF have any particular piece of their programs well fleshed out. In fact for both of them, really the only known fact is the use of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). What is also known for both is that the introduction of those standards will be a huge, bumpy task and that the related assessments are still a year away. Regardless of one’s opinion of CCSS, this is a sorry situation.

On top of this, CORE’s own assessment and evaluation tools have yet to be developed. And while supposedly parents and teachers have been involved in discussions about each, that involvement must have been announced in the subtlest of fashions since it appears to have escaped all notice. Future steps for engagement on both fronts can be found in the waiver application, however we may need to invite ourselves to this party in order to make sure community voices are really brought into the mix.

With so little certainty either in CORE or LCFF, our attention will be extremely divided. So, district administrators and the community will have to respond to and keep our eyes on two exceedingly unspecified yet extremely influential sets of procedures and policies. It’s difficult to see what is gained by this twin approach, except the NCLB exception. That’s a steep price to pay for something that we should have been given for free, especially since LCFF provides enough room to do much of what is in the CORE plan.

While LCFF is expansive enough to encompass CORE, there are specific elements that would be better left out. The most serious of these is the intent to measure student growth and to use that as one input in evaluating teachers. Again, “student growth” sounds suspiciously like just another label for the debunked value-added models that have been shown to measure absolutely nothing at all. Because academic subjects are not linear in nature (e.g. Algebra isn’t just one stop before or after Geometry and World History isn’t simply American History plus or minus “1”), the concept of student growth is illusory. This is so much the case, that part of CORE’s plan is to hire a vendor to develop a model of student growth that can be tested and then articulated throughout the various assessment and evaluation components of CORE, such as with teacher performance.

Clearly the rhetoric of data-driven, tested approaches is in fact just rhetoric. Why are we throwing untold dollars at consultants to develop statistical models of questionable value instead of using those resources for solutions that are known to make a difference for kids? Instead of crunching numbers, let’s hire more teachers and have very small classes sizes so that teachers can know their students and actually work with them as opposed to corralling them. Let’s make sure all schools have well-stocked libraries with excellent print and online collections and librarians who can provide great information literacy education. We could ensure that all schools have an excellent range of academic offerings and electives, and that there are real opportunities to seriously engage in the arts, music and sports.

Much of this is common sense and none of it is surprising, but perhaps this list of known strategies is so well-worn it can’t be read any more by those who have the power to decide what counts and what doesn’t. Or perhaps there is another motive lurking underneath. The philosophical framework CORE is relying on comes from a Canadian academic turned educational entrepreneur named Michael Fullan, who’s paper about using the right “drivers” for change in academia has turned him into the next savior for schools in many circles. What is disturbing about this is his apparent devotion to Bill and Melinda Gates, who are called out by name on page 4 of the paper cited by CORE as essentially his target audience :

“…it is almost inevitable that those most committed to reform, and most perplexed by the lack of progress, will figure it out because they are used to solving complex social problems. I expect, for example, that Bill and Melinda Gates, and key political and policy leaders in the US and Australia will be open to the arguments and evidence put forward in these pages.”

Bill and Melinda Gates may be rich, but they are not the people most committed to strengthening our public schools and they are not the people education policies should be responsive to. Students, first and foremost, parents and teachers are the people who count here. Fullan’s love note to Gates, especially given Gates’ very damaging dalliances throughout the educational arena, makes one think at least twice about anything else he has to say and calls into question the use of his work by the CORE districts. Such a decision speaks volumes about the level of vigilance public education activists will have to keep up as the permutations of CORE’s development and implementation unfold.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

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