Sacramento City Unified to abandon high-profile consortium plan

The Sacramento City Unified School District announced Wednesday it will abandon a plan to work with seven other California school districts on employing new performance standards that were intended to satisfy federal education officials.

The announcement at the Sacramento City Teachers Association office in east Sacramento was a victory for the teachers, who had broadly criticized the district’s participation in a consortium of California districts that agreed to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations.

Patrick Kennedy, president of the school board, recounted the initiatives sought through the California Office to Reform Education plan, including a holistic approach to evaluating school performance and an agreement to carry out the new Common Core state standards.

But, he said, “It has become clear we will not be able to sustain the initiatives unless all of our partners are engaged and working together.”

CORE made headlines last year when the U.S. Department of Education granted the consortium the nation’s first district-level waivers from No Child Left Behind, a departure from the normal practice of granting waivers to states. The federal NCLB law expects all students to reach a “proficient” level on state tests by this school year, a bar so high that 42 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to the CORE districts, obtained waivers on the promise they would find alternate ways to improve education.

California’s bid for a waiver from No Child Left Behind was rejected in late 2012 after the state declined to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, a priority for the Obama administration. Central to the CORE waiver was a commitment by the eight participating districts to do that.

The Sacramento teachers union argued that the plan gave too much power to the outside consortium.

“We believe that in working collaboratively with the district and the community, we can make many of the more positive initiatives contained within the (CORE) application a reality without the loss of local control to the unelected California Office to Reform Education,” SCTA President Nikki Milevsky said in Wednesday’s joint announcement.

“Student test scores are not an accurate measure of teacher quality,” she said after the meeting.

The district for the balance of this academic year continues to operate under the CORE waivers, which encompass more than 1 million students in school districts in Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana.

Wednesday’s announcement means the district returns July 1 to mandates of No Child Left Behind, a law that has drawn criticism from both educators and teachers groups. The seven other school districts must meet a May 1 deadline to apply for a second year of waiver. CORE Executive Director Rick Miller said all seven plan to move ahead.

Because of its waiver this school year, Sacramento City Unified gained autonomy in spending about $4 million in federal dollars to aid low-income students. Under No Child Left Behind starting in July, much of that money, as before, could go to for-profit companies that provide tutoring.

Under the CORE waiver this year, the district also paired teachers from different schools and different CORE districts to share teaching methods and best practices. Under a return to the federal law, that practice will be kept within each campus.

The district this year made no progress in linking student test scores to teacher evaluations, an effort that would have required approval from the teachers union.

In addition, teachers were harshly critical of the district for joining CORE with scant public comment, failing to engage the teachers association about the idea and claiming meetings with teachers that did not occur. The labor group began a petition drive with backing from several activist community groups to have the district withdraw from the consortium.

Last month, schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi worried aloud that the teachers’ mistrust could keep the district from moving ahead on the district’s new approach to improving schools’ performance.

“Nothing can usurp the collective bargaining agreement,” she said then. “If we are not in agreement, it’s pointless.”

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