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Vanilla Waivers

Release Date: 

March 3, 2014

Is it really that unreasonable to expect student growth in state test scores to play some role in how we evaluate teachers?  Apparently, a majority of the Washington State Senate thinks so.


Vanilla wafers.  They’re subtly sweet, but not overwhelming.  Not too sweet, not too bland.  As a famous intruder to a bear family home might remark, they are “jusssst right.”

Might the same be said for the balanced approach of Washington’s ESEA flexibility waiver, and in particular, the modest changes proposed in Senate Bill 5246 to let that waiver succeed?  The proposal seems fairly, well — vanilla.  Is it really that unreasonable to expect state administered student test scores to play some role in how we evaluate teachers?  They certainly play a role in how we evaluate students.  And, how we evaluate schools, for that matter.   But when it comes to evaluating teachers; that apparently is a step too far for the state Senate.

After initially enjoying support from key Democrats, the vote on Senate Bill 5246 fell well short (19-28), revealing an unlikely alliance of Republicans, apparently wary of federal involvement in education, and Democrats, apparently wary of how key constituent groups might react to passage of a proposal that they themselves originally brought forth.


The facts of the situation are pretty straightforward.  The federal government is anxious to provide flexibility “waivers” to states from the antiquated provisions of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB is quickly becoming irrelevant, and the feds know this.  For example, soon, virtually all schools will be “failing” under the NCLB definition, and will be required to send letters alerting their parents to the fact that they have school choice options.  This is somewhat ludicrous, however, since virtually all schools in the state will be labeled ‘failing,’ creating a false pretense of ‘choice’ for parents.   Are they supposed to leave one failing school for another?

So, these waivers are basically a contract – if states promise to implement a variety of reforms, the federal government will agree to relax various regulatory requirements within NCLB.  Included in this flexibility is more freedom on how to spend federal dollars (about $44 million statewide), as well as more freedom for each state to define what a struggling school is (do we use just math and reading scores, for example, or can we take a broader look at a school in determining who is struggling the most?).  Basically, it’s reform for flexibility: a fair trade.  Seemingly.

One of the federal government’s required reforms is the promise that growth data from state assessment scores will play some role (not most, not half, but some role – “one of multiple measures” per the bill) in teacher evaluations.  Our current state law says that districts may do this, which, if you think about it, is about as good as saying nothing at all.   Discovering this, the feds put Washington on the “high risk” list – signaling that our waiver was in jeopardy.  Senate Bill 5246 was designed to remedy this situation, primarily through the language included below, but as we now know: it failed.


As is increasingly the case in Washington, both political parties have it partly right.  In sifting through this, a few points are worth making.

  •  Many are worried about the federal government playing too prominent a role in our education policy.  Keep in mind, though, that the ESEA flexibility waivers are an attempt by USED to get out of its own way.  Knowing they have repeatedly failed to reauthorize NCLB, a waiver is an escape route of sorts.  A successful waiver arguably gives our state more, not less, authority over its own policy.  A failed waiver, on the other hand, keeps us under the thumb of antiquated and relatively inflexible federal provisions of NCLB; less flexible funding, more draconian performance standards with virtually 100% ‘failing’ schools, and very little opportunity for states to customize policy.  It’s obvious: the federal government is trying to get out of the way.  We just have to let them.
  • Of course, many states – including ours – are not fond of federal regulation, but nor are we eager to hand back the associated federal funding.  State government makes regulatory demands of school districts, and school districts of their schools.  It’s reasonable to assume that funding comes with a responsibility of oversight.  We should not expect from the feds what we ourselves would not accept from our districts – essentially, a “no strings attached” funding stream.   As long as the federal expectations are reasonable, aligned with best practice, and increasingly flexible – as the ESEA waiver provisions seem to be – then we should embrace, not fight, the opportunity they represent.   It’s certainly better than status quo.
  • If we expect all students to get to academic standard, then implicitly we are expecting academic growth each and every year (as well we should).  But let’s be fair about it: accountability for academic growth should be shared and reciprocal.  The students shouldn’t be the only ones.  Both students and educators should be accountable for rates of academic growth (as well as schools and districts), and if state tests are one means by which we hold students accountable (particularly for high school graduation), then consistency of expectations for the adult educators in the system seems appropriate.
  • Speaking of federal overreach, here is an example of state overreach.  The original Senate version of Senate Bill 5246 went well beyond the federal requirements to include a ‘rank ordering’ of teachers based on growth, with those in the bottom quartile getting additional support.  Not a good idea.  Let local education leaders do their job, and consider multiple data points – both quantitative and qualitative – in deciding who needs additional support.  Keep in mind that fewer than 20% of teachers teach in subjects which actually produce these state tests scores.  We shouldn’t discount student growth data in the evaluation process, but nor should we oversell it, or micromanage its use.

The latest news is that Governor Inslee is prepared to lead on this issue, and will ask for the resurrection of a bill that addresses this issue, but perhaps with a delay in the year of implementation.  That seems a reasonable solution.  We should urge its adoption so that Washington can continue on the path of securing an approved waiver, but more importantly, crafting its own system of accountability and support, outside the restrictions of the increasingly antiquated federal No Child Left Behind Act.  We don’t want to be left behind as other states forge forward with next generation systems of accountability and support for their students and schools.  All that’s needed is one – vanilla – waiver.

~ Ben Rarick,
Executive Director

Media Contact: 

Alissa Muller, SBE Communications Manager, (360) 725-6501