In a bluntly worded response to Texas’s appeal of the U.S. Department of Education’s designation of the state’s ESEA waiver as "high-risk," USDE reaffirmed its threat that if Texas does not meet certain teacher evaluation system requirements by Jan. 15, 2016, Texas would lose its waiver after the 2015-16 school year. 

Specifically, Ann Whalen, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, stated in a Nov. 6, 2015, letter, that the same condition that USDE articulated in its Sept. 29, 2015, letter granting the state’s request to renew its ESEA waiver through the end of the 2015-2016 school year, and placing the waiver on high-risk status, still applied. Whelan stated, “That condition was to submit final guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that meet the requirements of ESEA flexibility, including the use of growth in student learning as a significant factor in determining a teacher's or a principal's summative evaluation rating. Texas's ESEA flexibility renewal request did not meet this condition because the state's guidelines do not demonstrate how they will ensure that all local educational agencies (LEAs) implement teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that … no later than the 2016-17 school year,” include “the use of growth in student learning as a significant factor and, for teachers of tested grades and subjects, a statewide approach to measuring growth in student learning based on state assessments. Texas's guidelines also do not ensure that all LEAs will use the results of teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that meet (these requirements) to inform personnel decisions starting with ratings generated using data from the 2016-17 school year.”

Statewide approach

Whelan elaborated on each of the two requirements. She stated that requiring a statewide approach to student learning on state assessments for teachers of tested grades and subjects was “important to provide a comparable method of determining how much a student has learned as demonstrated by changes in the student's test scores between two points in time, so that teachers and principals have a meaningful way of understanding their students' growth in the context of similar data for other students and educators across the state.”  She added that “(USDE) does not prescribe the specific, statewide measure that states must use to meet this requirement; however, (the department) does require that the evaluation and support systems states and districts are implementing under ESEA flexibility include a statewide approach so that the benefits articulated above can be realized.”

She pointed out that Texas falls short of this requirement because evaluation system guidelines permit teachers of tested grades and subjects and principals to be evaluated and supported based on the results of systems that need not necessarily include growth in student learning based on the state assessments. “ESEA flexibility does not require growth in student learning based on the state assessments to be the singular or majority factor in determining the summative rating for teachers of tested grades and subjects and principals; however, ESEA flexibility requires that growth in student learning based on the state assessments be a factor in determining the summative rating for teachers of tested grades and subjects and principals.”

She indicated that USDE had discussed several approaches to meeting this requirement with TEA staff in July and September 2015, and provided information related to other states' approaches in an email sent Oct. 8. She added that USDE “remains committed to working with you and your staff over the next several months to resolve this condition.”

Regarding the USDE condition that Texas ensure that all local school districts use the results of teacher and principal evaluation and support systems meeting the above-stated requirements to inform personnel decisions beginning with ratings using data from the 2016-17 school year, Whelan stated, “Since Texas has not provided (teacher evaluation) guidelines that meet (the conditions stated above), nor has it provided a plan to develop guidelines that will ensure that all districts develop, adopt, pilot and implement systems that meet (the conditions stated above), the state has not demonstrated that systems that meet all requirements will be used to inform personnel decisions. Should Texas submit guidelines that meet all requirements, the personnel decisions that Texas' systems include — individualized goal-setting, professional development, and contract renewal decisions — are sufficient to satisfy the personnel decisions component (of the conditions).”

Road ahead

TCTA has consistently objected to the department’s heavy-handed and prescriptive approach regarding teacher evaluation requirements as a condition of securing an ESEA waiver and publicly supported the Texas commissioner of education’s appeal of the waiver’s designation as “high-risk.” Among the most troubling of USDE’s teacher evaluation requirements is the department’s insistence that the state require the use of student performance on state assessments as a significant factor in the evaluation of teachers of tested subjects. TCTA has repeatedly pointed out that the growing weight of the research shows that the use of student test performance to measure teacher performance is an invalid measure, and there are numerous other problems with this approach.

As the commissioner stated in his appeal, without specific changes in Texas law that cannot happen prior to the Legislature meeting in 2017, he is not authorized to mandate that local school districts use a statewide appraisal system. This puts Texas in an untenable position regarding meeting USDE requirements by the Jan. 15, 2016, deadline. With USDE’s denial of the commissioner’s appeal, it is unclear whether the situation can be resolved in time. 

As USDE has stated, the consequences of failing to meet the deadline are that Texas will be required to resume implementing NCLB's adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards, required school interventions, and restrictions on 20 percent of Title I expenditures starting in the 2016-17 school year.

In the meantime, however, Congress is apparently making movement on a rewrite of the ESEA. A conference committee has met to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, which both give significant relief to states and school districts from many of the more onerous provisions of the current ESEA/NCLB. The conference committee agreement does not mandate specific teacher evaluation requirements. It is also noteworthy that the current administration  will end in January 2017, with a new president taking office. 

Any of these factors could significantly impact what happens with Texas’s waiver situation, leaving a great amount of uncertainty at this point. As always, TCTA will continue to monitor, advocate, and report to our members as developments occur.