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State still looking into NCLB waivers

Alaska preps to up English, math standards

Posted: December 1, 2011 - 1:08am

The Alaska Department of Education & Early Development is still looking at all the factors for applying for a newly offered waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act rules.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the waiver program in September, and earlier this month state education commissioner Mike Hanley told The Associated Press it would be “wrong” of the state to not consider them.

Eric Fry, department information officer, said they have finished evaluating what the federal government wants from states on the waivers. The waivers would allow states to opt-out of certain measures related to testing requirements in Adequate Yearly Progress, where schools have to meet certain standards in all 31 categories or it “fails.”

Fry said now the department is evaluating whether it would be able to meet the waiver conditions. Those conditions focus on three heavy topics — subject standards, accountability and teacher evaluation.

He said the first condition the state is almost ready for.

“In December we’re proposing new standards for English and math,” Fry said.

The department board will meet Dec. 15-16 in Anchorage, dealing with the proposed new standards. Fry said they intend to have a lengthy public comment period on the changes, as they are expected to be substantial. They anticipate voting in new measures in June.

“We’ve been working on that for a year, so that’s why we have that ready,” Fry said.

The second portion focuses on alternative state measures of accountability. Alaska, if it seeks a waiver, will have to show accountability measures for how it will handle underperforming schools, how and when it would intervene and so forth.

“The advantage of coming up with our own accountability system is it could be much more flexible than what the federal government wants,” Fry said. “Is a school proficient, yes or no? If you miss in one criteria it’s just as bad as missing all the criteria. States want the flexibility so they can treat different schools differently. If you’re only missing one subgroup, you wouldn’t have to turn the entire school upside down.”

The third point is the federal government wants states to include guidelines on teacher evaluations — specifically to include student performance as one piece of a teacher’s evaluation.

“Our focus has been to ask, what do we think is best for Alaska?” Fry said.

Once that question is answered, they see if it lines up with what the federal government is asking for in terms of the waivers and the decision ultimately comes to Gov. Sean Parnell.

“The governor would have to approve something as significant as this,” Fry said.

Fry said the deadline to let the federal sector know the state is interested is in February, but there also are rolling deadlines that make future buy-ins possible.

“What the federal government is offering to waive is (the requirement) by 2014 every student be proficient,” he said. “What they were hoping for by spring 2014, every assessed student would score proficient on state tests. I don’t think any state can even come close to achieving that.”

Meanwhile, work is being done on changing the flaws of the law itself. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is one working on those measures.

“I had introduced a couple different bills,” Murkowski explained. “I have had them in the legislative hopper for a period of years as we worked toward reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. It would move us from measuring accountability from a pretty mathematical process — they calculate AYP based on a test given on one day that’s basically a snapshot in time. There are 31 ways to fail with no flexibility.”

Instead, the bill would change the testing measure to a student growth model. She said it would see how individual children are growing through the academic process.

Murkowski also is looking at a measure that will take a broader look at the school drop out rate.

“Not at the high school level where we typically think — at the early years of a child’s education when there are risk factors that take over,” she said. “‘I don’t like school, I don’t want to do my homework.’ We need to try and understand what it is that’s causing our kids to check out of that process. I maintain you don’t have a student in their junior year of high school say, ‘I don’t like school, I’m dropping out.’ I want us to be intervening with kids at much earlier levels.”

Murkowski also has offered amendments to other related bills that would give flexibility to Alaska’s education challenges — and would fit with other remote areas of the country.

One would be to allow those who come into classrooms to teach Native languages to not be required to have a “highly qualified” certification.

“Right now Tlingit, Yupik are considered a foreign language,” Murkowski said. “Those in the classroom to teach that, have to be highly qualified. At Harborview Elementary Grandma Selina (Everson), comes in and teaches Tlingit. She is a very revered member of the Tlingit tribe.”

Murkowski said elders like Everson won’t be going back to college, but she wanted to make sure there was a provision in the law so that Native language speakers could come into the schools and share their language.

The second amendment Murkowski focused on was also related to “highly qualified” teacher requirements. She said in many rural schools teachers are often expected to teach more than one subject. But, a village may hire, for example, a highly qualified math teacher who may also have to take on science because that highly qualified teacher moved on. That math teacher is only certified as “highly qualified” in his subject.

“Under federal law, if you haven’t met the requirements for having been trained in these core academic areas, you can’t be teaching,” Murkowski said. “What I offered up, is teachers who might be in small settings or teaching multiple subjects, use distance learning so we can ensure kids in our small rural comminutes, so that kids get the education we want.”

Basically the proposal will pair that math teacher with a highly qualified science teacher via technology.

Murkowski said waivers aren’t going to be enough to deal with the shortfalls of NCLB.

“Granting waivers to NCLB to a federal law that I think most of us would agree needs to be changed, doesn’t solve the problem,” she said. “NCLB has some inherent structural flaws that need to be addressed.”

Fry said Murkowski’s revisions would meet a lot of the state’s concerns about lack of flexibility in the law, but that the state has concerns about the timeline of when those changes would be enacted.

“We can’t be sure what will come out of Congress, so it behooves us to continue to prepare for a possible waiver application, subject to the governor’s final approval,” he said.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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