The U.S. Department of Education has extended Indiana’s waiver of some rules imposed by the controversial No Child Left Behind law, despite initial concerns by federal officials that the state wasn’t fulfilling its obligations.
The agency removed conditions that had been placed on Indiana’s waiver after a federal inspection last August found the state was not adequately monitoring troubled schools and effectively implementing academic standards and evaluations.
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said her office has satisfied those concerns and the one-year waiver extension “validates what we do at the department.” But she said what matters most is the flexibility the waiver gives schools in the way they use federal dollars.
“It means a lot for the students,” Ritz said. Without a waiver, Hoosier schools are severely restricted in the way they spend about $230 million in federal dollars aimed at helping poor children. With it, they can be more creative about solving the same problems.
“We’re talking remediation, we’re talking intervention, we’re talking instructional coaches,” Ritz said. “We’re talking personnel that actually assist children on a one-to-one basis.”
Gov. Mike Pence called the waiver great news because it “gives us the ability to maintain local control of how federal education dollars are invested.”
The waiver also means Indiana can continue to have flexibility in how it measures student performance and growth. No Child Left Behind imposed a tough system that required test scores to improve within tight demographic groups. If a school missed the mark in just one category – such as special education students – it would fail to meet what the law called adequate yearly progress. The waiver allows states to create alternative evaluation systems.
But that had been one of the issues plaguing Indiana’s compliance. The General Assembly last year paused the implementation of Common Core – a controversial set of curriculum standards that have been adopted by most states. Instead, Indiana education officials spent months developing their own system, which was only approved last spring.
Federal officials needed assurance those new standards – and the tests that measure student performance against them – would be ready for the current school year. For the most part, they were satisfied.
But federal officials said they still have concerns about the way the state evaluates teachers and administrators and will continue to closely monitor that issue. Ritz said that’s in part because a state law that requires new teacher ratings doesn’t apply to about 40 districts with older collective bargaining contracts. Those schools haven’t yet had to rate their teachers and therefore the pay raises in those districts have had no ties to test scores. But Ritz said the situation will resolve as those contracts expire.
“We’ll be working with those school corporations,” she said.
And recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he would be offering schools some flexibility in the way they use those test scores. Ritz said Thursday she’d be talking with lawmakers and other state leaders about whether to take advantage of the option. But Betsy Wiley, president of Hoosiers for Quality Education, a reform-minded education nonprofit, said the superintendent needs to focus on getting those tests ready for the current school year.
“We believe our students and educators deserve measurements that accurately and fairly assess the learning taking place in schools,” Wiley said.
In a letter to the state, U.S. Department of Education Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said she decided to grant Indiana’s request for an extension because the waiver “has been effective in enabling Indiana to carry out important reforms to improve student achievement.” The waiver has allowed the state to use its own A-F grading scale to rate schools and to integrate test results into teacher evaluations and salaries.
Ritz, a Democrat, has been skeptical of some of those changes, which were approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the bipartisan State Board of Education, whose members have all been appointed by Republican governors. And state board members have been critical of Ritz’s handling of the waiver.
On Thursday, board member Gordon Hendry said the concerns were legitimate. Still, he said “school leaders, teachers and families who have been worried about this decision for months can breathe a sigh of relief today that Indiana is not going to lose these funds or our ability to use them flexibly.”
Board members were frustrated earlier this spring when they learned that Ritz knew the U.S. Department of Education had concerns serious enough to put conditions on the waiver. And they demanded more information as Ritz’s team put together the waiver request for the current school year.
Hendry said the problems that put the waiver in jeopardy didn’t have to happen. “Dodging the worst-case scenario in this instance should lead to a stronger partnership with the U.S. Department of Education as we continue to improve Indiana K-12 policy,” he said.
Ritz said Thursday that state and federal officials are now in continual communication about the waiver and are working together to prevent future problems.
Despite the issues, federal officials did laud Indiana’s work in two areas. It commended the state for:
- Developing and posting a series of tutorial videos to build the capacity of all teachers to successfully write and implement student learning objectives, which is one of three measures of student growth under the state’s new teacher evaluation system.
- Creating the Division of Outreach for School Improvement. According to Ritz’s office, the division “works proactively with schools at the grassroots level to support educators, while monitoring, developing and strengthening school improvement to ensure that school improvement efforts in Indiana are intentionally aligned to the federal turnaround principles.”
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.