After [this week's] Senate hearing on the Obama administration's No Child Left Behind waivers, three state chiefs gathered to talk about the nitty-gritty: How these waivers are playing out in their states. New Jersey's Chris Cerf, New York's John King, and Kentucky's Terry Holliday headlined this one-hour fireside chat hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Between the great questions asked by moderator Andy "Eduwonk" Rotherham and the audience (such as the New America Foundation's Anne Hyslop), these issues emerged as compelling ones:
1. What do waivers look like in the hands of not-so-great state chiefs? Right now, the country has a crop of really great state chiefs, Rotherham said. (And indeed, the influence of state chiefs, even in Washington, seems to have grown in the last few years.) But Rotherham wondered if the success of waivers is personality-driven, and significantly dependent on who's in charge. Kentucky's Holliday acknowledged that states don't always get a good chief, and so, yes, he said he's worried.
2. Will chiefs make a lot of changes to their waiver plans? As we saw in Race to the Top, states promise a lot to win things—whether it be lots of money or federal flexibility. Will states have to backtrack on their promises, and how forgiving will federal officials be? Cerf said he doesn't want to see a lot of federal nitpicking and letters back and forth (so in other words, not the Race to the Top model of making changes).
3. How will the U.S. Department of Education hold states accountable? King said he'd like the feds to publicly call out the bad actors and financially penalize them. He said, "We have to be careful not to conflate flexibility with the Wild West." Cerf seemed far less interested in being held accountable for the nitty-gritty technical details in his plan, and more interested in being held accountable for student outcomes. (I'm not sure this will fly with federal officials, and possibly for good reason. We might not be able to judge the effect of waivers on student outcomes for a least a couple more years.)
4. When states start switching to common tests and cut scores, and student performance appears to do a nose-dive, will all of these new accountability efforts fall apart? From Holliday's perspective, the tests must reveal results that are similar to the results states post on NAEP. Otherwise, the new common tests won't be credible. And for King, he said the responsibility is on the adults to grapple with lower test results because students already do—such as when they enter college unprepared and must take and pay for remedial courses before they can even start earning credits.
5. What will be the biggest tripping point for states? Cerf said it's New Jersey's new system of improvement for schools and districts that relies on Regional Achievement Centers. Holliday said it's the oft-neglected "principle 4" that focuses on district-level innovation. And King said it's getting people in New York to believe the lowest-performing schools really can be improved.