Op-ed: Waiver for NCLB the Right Choice for California

Op-ed: Waiver for NCLB the Right Choice for California

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Around this time every year, millions of parents in California are working through the school enrollment process. Unfortunately, while many don’t have a choice regarding what school their child will attend, those who do often find their options bewildering.

My wife and I are both educators (her currently, me formerly). We know the education system well, and what qualities to look for in a school. Still, even we were confused when we moved from San Diego to Oakland and began looking at local public schools.

After months of research and hours spent talking about the pros and cons of schools, we filled out our “options” form with our top three school choices. In some ways, this final step was a leap of faith. The school we picked had low scores but we liked the Spanish immersion program and believed that the principal and teachers could turn it around.

Our experience is not uncommon, as conversations with numerous other parents showed us. As parents, we know that the schools we select will have lifetime implications for our children’s success. But as we make these choices, we lack high-quality information on school performance.

The first problem is the school rating system. Every school in California has two separate ratings.

California has a state system called the API (Academic Performance Index) that ranks schools on a point system up to 1000. However, schools are also ranked by the federal rating system based on AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). A school can be highly ranked in the state system and do poorly in the federal system. Neither system provides a full picture of how well a school is performing.

For instance, California’s API system doesn’t tell parents how groups of students – such as English Learners, students with disabilities, Latinos or African-Americans – are doing. The federal model provides this information but fails to give the school any credit for the academic progress of students who haven’t achieved grade level standards.

Under the state system, nothing happens to even the very worst schools. Under the federal system, schools that are making considerable progress can be labeled failing and suffer sanctions. Neither system really tells parents whether the majority of students in the school are on track for graduation and college-readiness.

Recently, the Obama Administration gave state leaders the opportunity to apply for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that states apply assessments in basic skills to all students in certain grades if they are to receive federal funding. Such a waiver would allow California the opportunity to develop and use a single school rating system that provides complete and transparent information on school performance for parents and community members.

Eleven states around the country took the option and applied in the first round. Thirty other states have signaled their willingness to apply in the second round in February. California remains undecided, with leaders in Sacramento throwing up an array of excuses as to why we should not join that list.

At a recent State Board of Education meeting, supporters of the waiver asked leaders to quickly come to a decision. Among those gathered were superintendents from the Central Valley’s Sanger Unified School District, Long Beach Unified School District, and Morgan Hill Unified School District in the Bay Area. Advocacy groups including Children Now and Education Trust-West were also at the meeting.

The arguments put forward ranged from building a better accountability system to allowing districts to focus on the highest-need and lowest performing schools, targeting them with the attention, resources and reforms they need to improve. Such steps would help ease the widespread confusion prevalent among parents by providing more concise and accurate information and could also help resolve the widening achievement gap.

Additionally, a waiver from NCLB would offer increased flexibility with federal dollars so state and local leaders can target those dollars at vital areas such as improving teaching and leading, implementing our new state standards, and increasing academic rigor so all of our students graduate college and career ready.

Sadly, no decision was forthcoming form the State Board during the hearing. Instead, leaders stated that they will postpone making a final decision on whether or not to apply for a waiver until March.

In the meantime, it is critical that parents and community groups let state board members know that it is time for California to submit a waiver application. We can’t afford to lose this opportunity to build a transparent, high-quality system for rating schools and districts, one that provides crucial information on how well our schools are doing in preparing all children for college and career.

As parents, we deserve to have all the information we need to make the right educational choices for our children’s future.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and they have two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.