The Coming Battle over NCLB Exemptions

In 2014, no students will be behind in math or reading. All of them will meet grade-level goals. That's the plan according to No Child Left Behind.

Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that ten states were getting waivers from the controversial law’s requirements. The states would implement their own plans, approved by the Department of Education, for improving public schools. New Mexico, the only other state that applied, was not granted a waiver, but Duncan explained htat this was because its application was incomplete. A few days, he said, and the state would likely be approved.

According to the Obama administration, 39 states have expressed interest in applying for waivers. The next round of applications will be due by the end of February. In the meantime, a fight about the future of educational improvement is unfolding both in Washington and in school districts around the country.

As 2014—the deadline for total proficiency—gets closer, educators, parents, and policy nerds who follow these things are waiting for Washington to come up with a new plan to replace or adjust No Child Left Behind. I'm guessing even the people who wrote the bill a decade ago expected some changes by now. Instead, lawmakers in Congress are at loggerheads with the Obama administration. No plans have actually made it to the floor even though more than half of school districts around the country failed to meet the increasingly tough NCLB requirements last year. (For good background on No Child Left Behind, check out the Boston Globe's guide.)

No Child Left Behind grew out of the education-reform movement, which, when the program was enacted in 2001, was focused on creating standards and then measuring student performance using tests. The law required schools to test all students each year and to show not just how students performed overall, but how individual minority groups and those with learning disabilities performed. It was an effort to shed light on populations frequently underserved. However, the law also put in place stiff punitive measures to deal with schools not meeting the law's requirements. 

In the decade since NCLB was passed, education reform has shifted. Instead of focusing on just student performance, millions of philanthropic dollars have been invested in finding ways to evaluate teachers. There have been major pushes for charter schools and giving parents more choice in where to send their children, while at the same time there have been calls for a nationwide set of curriculum standards, emphasizing readiness for the workplace or college.

Secretary Duncan, a product of the education reform movement in Chicago, has made clear what states must emphasize in order to get approved for a waiver. As yesterday's press release explained:

To get flexibility from NCLB, states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback.

Duncan and Obama are facing plenty of pushback—but this isn't just the usual partisan conflict. Congressional Republicans have opposed the waivers, arguing the administration is overstepping its authority. But the detractors are also coming from other corners. EdWeek, a major education publication, highlighted criticism from Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs at the National Council of La Raza. Gonzalez worried that the new waivers will reverse NCLB's emphasis on the performance of specific groups, because states can use "super-subgroups" rather than showing how individuals perform. He wasn't the only one with concerns:

On the whole, [super-subgroups] are pretty scary,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates for poor and minority students. “The disadvantage is that it essentially gets us back to the pre-NCLB problem of masking the achievement of one group behind the achievement of other groups. … You could move one subgroup and leave the rest behind and get yourself a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Duncan said that under NCLB, if there are only a few students in a subgroup, then that subgroup doesn't count for NCLB purposes. The new "super subgroups" may mean more students' performances are actually accountable to the system, a point Wilkins agreed with.

Meanwhile, plenty of Republican-dominated states are supporting the waiver plans, which allow states to take different approaches to improving schools. Of the ten states receiving waivers this week, many like New Jersey, Indiana, and Florida have prominent GOP governors looking for national attention. In Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback is tacking far to the right, education officials are excited about applying for the next round. "What's nice about this is one size doesn't fit all. It's not a cookie-cutter approach. It's what works best for your state," Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker told the Kansas City Star. Meanwhile, Texas and California—states on opposite sides of the partisan spectrum—are not applying for waivers.

Don't worry, though—in Washington, lawmakers are maintaining a healthy D versus R fight. Republicans are critical of the administration for using the waivers to shape policy. But while they've been outspoken in criticizing Duncan and Obama for overstepping their role, there's been significantly less discussion of the actual policy itself, since many Republicans favor much of the same reform agenda that Duncan has pushed in the past. 

Congressional Republicans aren't likely to be the ones with the obvious critique of the new education policies—that they do little to deal with poverty and funding inequalities among states. Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education who's a vocal critic of much within the reform movement, sums up this argument nicely: "Any mention of poverty or other social and economic conditions that might affect students' motivation and academic performance is dismissed as excuse-making by the proponents of 'No Excuses.'"

Sure enough, in the conference call explaining the new policy, a reporter asked Duncan about the problems for schools trying to educate the needy kids with less money. Duncan pointed to his own experience in Chicago. "I also received less than half the money of wealthier districts three or four miles up the coast of Lake Michigan. So the children who needed the most got the least," Duncan said. "We made no excuses for not having achievement. We pushed very, very hard—every single child can be successful."

Every child can be successful—just not by 2014, it seems.

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