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Missouri wants to grade its own schools, without adding rules from Washington

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2011 - State education officials say their request for a waiver from requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law is not a retreat from accountability but an effort to judge Missouri schools by Missouri rules.

As things stand now, schools and districts that fare well in the Missouri School Improvement Plan often are judged to be falling short under the Adequate Yearly Progress yardstick from Washington. Not only is such a divided report card confusing, educators say, but it prevents the state from identifying the good districts that can serve as models and the poorer ones that need extra attention.

In Missouri, for example, 82.8 percent of the state's public school districts were judged as failing to make adequate yearly progress. This was often not because the entire district did poorly but because, under the federal rules, if one subgroup of students fails to make the grade, an entire district can fall short.

When judged by the state's yardstick, the Missouri School Improvement Plan, districts generally did far better, with results that more closely matched the common perceptions of which districts are doing well and which need improvement.

Congress has failed for several years to reauthorize and reform No Child Left Behind, so this fall the Obama administration said it would allow states to apply for waivers from its requirements. Eleven states submitted applications in the first round last month; more, including Missouri and Illinois, say they will seek the waivers in the next round, with a February deadline for applications.

In exchange for getting out from under some of the more burdensome and confusing requirements of the federal law, states have to pledge to come up with their own accountability systems, in three primary areas:

  • Making sure all students who graduate from high school are ready for college or a career
  • Having systems that identify good schools and those that fall short, with ways to recognize and improve both groups as needed
  • Developing and supporting good teachers and principals

The waivers would create a different dynamic between state education officials and those in Washington, according to Margie Vandeven, assistant education commissioner for the office of quality schools. In a recent presentation on why Missouri is applying for the waiver and the case it is making to be accepted, she said the federal Department of Education is saying, "OK, states, it's your turn to step up to the plate and show us some good examples of how you can move your performance forward."
In exchange, she added, states would be able to use their standards to judge their own schools, not be forced to impose one-size-fits-all regulations that all states would have to comply with.

"Put forward your plans, talk to us how you are going to hold your districts accountable with ambitious and attainable objectives," Vandeven said, "and we will in return not hold states accountable for imposing the sanctions associated with Adequate Yearly Progress."

The Missouri application, advanced by the state Board of Education last week, is now open for public comment until Jan. 5. After that time, comments will be taken into account, and the final plan will go before the board in January for submission to Washington.

State school officials say the application shows how closely Missouri already conforms to the requirements for a waiver, not only through the newly approved fifth version of the improvement program, known as MSIP5 but also through the state's Top 10 by 20 goal, under which Missouri pushes to rank in the top tier of states in education by the year 2020.

By adopting what are called Common Core Standards, Missouri has already worked with other states to come up with a mutual understanding of what students should know when they leave school. That effort underscores the fact that, unlike the federal Race to the Top program where states compete for grants from Washington, the waiver program is not competitive, so it fosters more collaboration.

The 42-page draft application for the waiver from No Child Left Behind's requirements relies heavily on recent actions by state education officials and others that show how Missouri is working to identify the best ideas in school improvement and put them in place.

It provides in detail how the state would go about achieving the three main objectives required to earn the waiver. The conclusion of the effective teacher section could be expanded to be part of the application as a whole:

"What matters is not merely the discovery that many schools are in need of improvement. What matters most is what schools, districts, and states will do to guarantee improvement and the essential role that the formative development of its educators will play in creating this improvement."

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