Department of Ed Lets Schools Off the Hook -- for Now

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Department of Education officially released standards for states to exempt themselves from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Many states are desperate to avoid the consequences of failing to meet the requirements of the 2001 law, which mandates that all students be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014 or lose federal funding.

Education-reform advocates widely acknowledge that NCLB was a step toward ensuring accountability and achievement in schools -- it also, for the first time, shined a light on the achievement gap between white and minority students. But the law, critics contend, also set unrealistic standards and timetables for achieving its goals. Since there seems little movement in Congress on revamping or changing NCLB, the Education Department is setting forth some ways to allow what it calls "flexibility."

But, like the Race to the Top program, ED isn't going to just give something away without asking schools for something in return.

Each state must meet three requirements to qualify for an NCLB waiver: First, they must adopt college-ready standards and assessments, which basically means that schools must demonstrate their students can handle college-level English and math courses. About 28 percent of 2011 ACT test takers failed to meet any of the college readiness standards in 2010 and 2011. Four in ten college freshmen -- half of those at two-year colleges -- end up taking remedial courses when they arrive. This is one of the big reasons why ED has been pushing for tougher standards in secondary education.

Second, states are required to "implement rigorous interventions" to turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of districts and target reforms on an additional 10 percent of schools that will become "Focus Schools" -- schools that have large achievement gaps, low graduation rates, or groups with particularly low student performance.

Finally, they will be required to implement teacher and principal performance evaluations and systems. This is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the waiver requirements. Indeed, the American Federation of Teachers -- the more moderate of the two major teachers' unions -- issued a statement from its president, Randi Weingarten, this morning that pushed back on this third component, saying, "Teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it's a missed opportunity not to follow their lead."

Still, the new standards are a bit less strict than the rigid ones laid out in NCLB, requiring that individual states and districts come up with their own standards based more on student progress over time and other professional standards, rather than dictating student proficiency standards like NCLB.

Currently, only a few states meet the necessary requirements for a waiver application out of the gate -- The New York Times reported likely candidates were Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Colorado.

It will be interesting to see how these waiver requirements are perceived in the states. After all, they have a strong incentive to exempt themselves from stringent NCLB requirements and keep federal funding, but local teacher lobbies may stall any proposed teacher evaluation requirements.

By giving schools more flexibility than NCLB, Duncan and ED are hoping to achieve standards and accountability but also accounting for the diversity of school populations. This strategy either has great potential to move education forward or backfire and leave states that can't achieve political changes without funding. If successful, Duncan can prove that change can be achieved through regulation. In an endlessly stalled Congress, it may be education's only option.