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GAO Urges Department of Education to Reflect on Flexibility Waivers to Better Help States Implement ESSA

GAO Urges Department of Education to Reflect on Flexibility Waivers to Better Help States Implement ESSA

After a year of investigation, the Government Accountability Office has issued a report that urges the Department of Education to evaluate and reflect on its past experiences with Flexibility Waivers to better support states as they begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Flexibility initiative that the GAO is referring to was created in 2011 so that states could work around the long-expired provisions of No Child Left Behind; those waivers officially expired just days ago on August 1, 2016.

Nearly every state applied for a waiver after the initiative’s introduction, with 43 states eventually being granted one.


Why a Review of Flexibility Waivers Can Benefit ESSA Implementation

The GAO’s report points out that twelve of these 43 states faced challenges while implementing these waivers at some point in the three-stage process (approval, monitoring and renewal).

The GAO found that despite the potential benefits of understanding where states struggled and how the Department could have better supported them, the Department has not dedicated time or resources to an evaluation as it gears up to oversee states’ new Title I plans under ESSA.

"Education continues to develop its oversight and technical assistance strategies for implementing the ESSA, which includes different requirements related to school accountability, among other things. Absent an evaluation of its oversight process for the Flexibility initiative to identify lessons learned, Education may miss an opportunity to strengthen its monitoring and oversight of states’ implementation of plans under ESSA and better support them in the areas that have presented significant challenges,” the report says.


GAO Identifies Several Areas for Department Improvement

To get a better understanding of state officials’ relationship with the Department during the waiver process, the GAO interviewed numerous state and Department officials and found several things that the Department should be interested in reviewing in order to ensure that similar challenges do not impact ESSA implementation.

For instance, the GAO says that “[o]fficials in 8 states told us that, because of staff turnover at Education during the waiver initiative, there was often an incomplete transfer of information from one staff person to the next, which required state officials to explain previous discussions or decisions, frustrating states, and wasting time.”

The Department’s timing was also revealed to have posed a challenge for many states operating under waivers.

"Officials from 9 states expressed concerns that Education’s timeframes to implement waiver requirements were too rigid and accelerated for such large-scale reforms. Officials from 5 of these states told us that timelines for implementing teacher and principal evaluation systems were especially challenging,” the report says.


The Department Responds

When given the opportunity to respond to the GAO’s findings, the Department argued that it has continuously made improvements to its oversight process “throughout the implementation of [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] flexibility.”

Still, it agrees with the GAO that continual improvement of its work is necessary to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

”We continue to glean lessons learned, and are already considering how we can incorporate the lessons that we have identified to date into our plans for overseeing the ESSA, including issues such as the design and implementation of State monitoring systems.”

Read the full report here.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor


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