Fact Sheet: Elementary And Secondary Education Act Flexibility

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The last three years have seen a historic shift in the relationship between the federal government and states, with more than 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico receiving flexibility from the prescriptive, top-down requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This flexibility has allowed states and districts to develop creative solutions tailored to their individual cultures, with major benefits for all students, regardless of background. This is a shift away from simple compliance and toward creativity with high expectations.

The law has been due for reauthorization since 2007, but in the absence of reauthorization, the Obama Administration began to grant waivers from the law in 2012 for states that promised to adopt college- and career-ready standards and assessments; create accountability systems that target the lowest-performing schools and schools with the biggest achievement gaps; and develop and implement teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that take into account student growth—among multiple measures—and are used to help teachers and principals improve their practices.

These waivers expire at the end of the current school year, and the U.S. Department of Education is offering renewals to states that want to extend this flexibility and continue the progress they've seen in the last three years. The guidance for renewal requests can be found here. The Obama Administration remains committed to working with Congress toward a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA.

Progress under flexibility

ESEA flexibility has led to greater focus on ensuring that schools have the same expectation of college- and career-readiness for every student. This year, more than 40 states are moving forward with high academic standards and next generation assessments that can better help teachers and parents understand what students are learning.

ESEA flexibility lets states set proficiency targets that are ambitious but achievable and that expect faster rates of progress for the students who are furthest behind. States also are focusing resources on comprehensive, rigorous interventions in the lowest-performing schools, while ensuring that all low-achieving students have the supports they need to catch up to their peers.

ESEA flexibility has had the effect of energizing teacher and principal effectiveness work across the country and put the focus on creating feedback systems that show the impact teachers and principals are having on student learning and shine a light on best practices to support teachers' development.

Renewal requests

Building on 2011 ESEA flexibility guidance—under which most states included three years of implementation—states seeking renewal this spring must explain how they will continue to implement the flexibility through at least the 2017-18 school year. Specifically, states must include the following in their renewal requests:

  • Details on how the state consulted with key groups on the implementation of ESEA flexibility and the changes the state is proposing to make to its currently approved flexibility request, including local districts, teachers and their representatives, administrators, students, parents, community-based organizations, civil rights organizations, organizations representing students with disabilities, organizations representing English learners, business organizations, institutions of higher education, and Indian tribes;
  • A description of how the state will continue to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and a career, including how the state will continue to support all students, including English learners, students with disabilities, low-achieving students, and economically disadvantaged students, and teachers of those students;
  • A demonstration that a school may not receive the highest rating in the state's accountability system if there are significant achievement or graduation rate gaps in the school that are not closing;
  • A description of interventions in the state's lowest-performing schools and schools with the largest-achieving gaps, including how the state will identify priority and focus schools that have not met targets and how the state will increase the rigor of interventions and supports in those schools;
  • A clear and rigorous process for providing interventions and supports to other Title I schools and supports for low-achieving students in those schools that consistently miss benchmarks;
  • A description of a statewide strategy to support and monitor district implementation of a system ensuring all students—no matter their zip code—are being served well and that districts are held accountable for their success; and
  • Updates from states reflecting the passage of time since the waivers were originally approved, including information about how the state will continuously improve implementation of its systems.

To help states that are transitioning to new assessments this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in August that the Department would offer extra time before schools must incorporate data from those tests into teacher and leader evaluations. Not all states will ask for this new flexibility, but those that are moving to new tests this year and want more time can request it during the renewal process. States that want a delay must agree to calculate student growth data and provide it to teachers and principals.

States requesting any additional types of flexibility in implementing their teacher and principal evaluation and support systems must also:

  • Show the progress made so far to ensure that each school district is on track to implement high-quality teacher and principal evaluation and support systems designed to improve instruction;
  • Provide the rationale for the state's proposed change(s); and
  • Describe the steps the state will take to ensure continuous improvement of evaluation and support systems that result in instructional improvement and increased student learning.