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Will states unleash powerful alternatives to No Child Left Behind?

Stacy Teicher KhadarooThe Christian Science Monitor
iStock illustration

President Obama today unveiled a sweeping plan to give states the flexibility they have been clamoring for under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law.

“The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable ... but experience has taught us that in its implementation, [it] had some serious flaws that are hurting our children,” the president said in a White House speech, flanked by students, principals, state education leaders, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Teachers feel pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test, and some states have lowered their standards to avoid penalties under the law, Mr. Obama noted.

“Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far ... So I will,” he said. “If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts ... we’ve got to get serious about education.”

Obama touted the plan as a way to unleash energy to improve schools at the local level.

Under the waiver plan, states would be freed from some parts of the law in order to pursue their own plans for school improvements and accountability, if they meet certain requirements of the Department of Education.

States that are granted waivers won’t get a reprieve from accountability, he said, but flexibility in exchange for higher standards.

The president’s speech comes as the school year gets under way with no good prospects for a full reauthorization of the law, which has been overdue in Congress since 2007.

This summer, some states were even in open revolt when it came to NCLB’s requirements that they raise the percentage of students achieving reading and math proficiency – and devote extra resources to schools that missed the mark.

Secretary Duncan put states on notice this summer that relief was on the way. The waiver plan has sparked pushback from some lawmakers who say it gives Duncan too much authority and undermines some bills that have been introduced in an attempt to fix some aspects of the law.

But the plan has won praise even from some groups that have been pushing hard for a full rewrite of NCLB.

“It correctly balances federal and state responsibility ... It says, we expect learning in exchange for federal dollars, but the systems of supports, interventions, sanctions, all of that is left up to the states. That is what is most hopeful,” says Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust in Washington, D.C., which advocates for closing achievement gaps.

The only question going forward, she adds, is “will the states really develop powerful plans.”

Duncan has noted that some states are already leading the way on raising student-achievement standards to reflect what’s needed to go on to college or a career, holding schools accountable for student gains, and improving teacher effectiveness – the three areas where the Department of Education is requiring a commitment in exchange for relief from the law.

Education officials from more than 40 states gave their input to the Department of Education on the waiver plan.

States will be able to apply during this school year for waivers of specific aspects of the law.

One aspect is the original 2014 deadline for schools to achieve 100 percent reading and math proficiency among their students. Instead, a state would have to establish ambitious but achievable goals and support improvement efforts for all schools and all students, according to background provided by White House and Education officials.

States would also have to adopt standards deemed “college and career ready,” which so far 44 states have done by signing onto what’s known as the Common Core State Standards initiative.

The annual proficiency increases to move toward the 2014 goal have been a major sticking point for states recently, as more and more schools fail to reach the targets.

This summer, for instance, Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau said her state simply didn’t have the resources to intervene in the 155 additional schools that would have required state attention under the higher proficiency bar the state was supposed to set. She reached a compromise with the Department of Education in August by raising the bar 1.4 percent in reading and 2 percent in math, which affected just 16 additional schools.

Another area of flexibility under the waivers is how to measure which schools need improvement. Currently the law requires a series of steps if schools or subgroups of students within them continue to fall short of annual goals. Now, states with waivers will be able to identify the lowest-performing schools (generally the bottom 5 percent) and focus intense intervention efforts there.

Additional supports are to be offered to another 10 percent of schools with high achievement gaps, low graduation rates, or particularly low performance among a subgroup of students, such as a racial group, students with disabilities, or English-language learners.

The final area states will have to commit to is improving teacher and principal effectiveness. With input from teachers and principals, they are to develop guidelines for improved evaluations that include a range of measures – one of which must be student progress over time.

There’s widespread agreement that teacher evaluation systems need fixing, but just how to do that has been a matter of great debate.

“Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused,” said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, in a written statement, which praises some aspects of the waiver plan but criticizes the evaluation requirement.

When states received federal stimulus money for education, they agreed to set up systems by January 2012 that would enable student achievement scores over time to be linked to their teachers, an Education Department Official says. Some states have recently passed laws to require such scores to be part of teacher evaluations, and others should have the data systems in place to plan to do so in the next few years.

Applications will be reviewed by a committee set up by the Department of Education.

If states are granted waivers, local districts will be able to use money more flexibly that was previously set aside to give students in low-performing schools tutoring or a choice to attend other schools. That would apply to about 20 percent of the Title I grants (for schools with low-income students), amounting to about $1 billion nationwide, Education Department officials estimate.

The National School Boards Association praises that shift as a way to help districts “support school improvement strategies that can more effectively address local conditions.”

The chairman of the House committee overseeing education, Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, criticized the plan as yet another layer of burdensome requirements on states. “Rather than force states to adopt policies that reflect the priorities of Washington bureaucrats, House Republicans are working to give more control to the state and local education officials who best understand the unique needs of their students,” he said in a written statement Friday.

At the Republican debate on Thursday, presidential candidates were nearly unanimous in their criticism of No Child Left Behind and the sentiment that the federal government should leave education matters to the states.