Let’s be clear: The Arne Duncan’s waiver gambit guts accountability. But then, Dropout Nation readers already knew that. The U.S. Secretary of Education made it even more clear this afternoon in the call he and White House domestic policy czar Melanie Barnes held with education reporters.
Duncan didn’t exactly offer a lot of specifics — and won’t do so until September, after conferring with states (and, for his sake, getting some sort of blessing and cover from congressional leaders still opposed to this gambit). But Duncan insists that the administration wants to reward “excellence” and support reform. These facts are clear: The waivers will essentially allow states to not only evade the 2014 provision — which calls for schools to ensure that every student is proficient in reading, math and science — but to avoid AYP altogether. If Duncan can get everything together by year-end, states would be allowed to start from scratch all over again, evading accountability altogether.
While Duncan and Barnes insist states will be held to “high standards”, some of the bars states have to jump in order to get the waivers are relatively low. The 44 states that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics could likely get waivers; for the six states that haven’t done so yet, this detail is a clear sign that they should go on ahead and embrace the standards in order to get out of accountability. While it is wonderful that states are willingly (or as willingly as anyone looking to get additional federal money) bringing rigor to standards, there is no guarantee that the states will continue to fully implement them by developing corresponding curricula. This can mean that they can waive out of accountability and not keep the rest of their obligations.
With the footprint of mandated federal accountability likely to be reduced under Duncan’s gambit from every school receiving Title 1 (including centers of mediocrity in suburbia where poor and minority children are provided low-quality instruction and curricula) to just the 5,000 or so persistent failure mills, it also means that more schools will be allowed to backslide on their obligations. Duncan could come up with some sort of solution for this by September, but that would likely mean going back to the very accountability measures he denigrated today. So, yeah, the poor and minority kids take it on the chin once again.
The good news, such as it can be, is that the waivers would allow states to focus on growth in achievement over time than on simple proficiency targets. But growth models have been accepted under No Child since the Bush administration instituted its own flexibility efforts. But, as in the Bush years, whether or not the growth models that will be submitted are aggressive enough to actually lead to strong gains in student achievement will be an open question.
Meanwhile Duncan went on to denigrate No Child as being “unfair” to schools that are making progress and yet could be labeled as failing. Declared Duncan: “It’s dishonest. It’s demoralizing to schools.” What Duncan failed to acknowledge is that the underlying reason for that had to do with the gamesmanship by states that didn’t make their standards and proficiency targets more-rigorous in the first place, then ramped them up just a few years before the 2014 target would come into play. The gamesmanship, which was tolerated by both Duncan and his predecessors,
Duncan also insisted on playing up the estimate that 82 percent of schools would be found academically failing under No Child released by the Department of Education earlier this year — and insisted that as many as 90 percent would be found failing. He did this in spite of the fact that current numbers coming in show otherwise. Earlier this year, Charlie Barone of Democrats For Education Reform and Andy Rotherham had called Duncan and the administration on the carpet for disseminating these numbers; they have also proven that, in practice, the 100 percent proficiency is actually more-aspirational (which is what No Child’s authors had always intended it to be) once one looks what proficiency actually looks like (getting half the answers on a test correct in many cases).
Let’s be clear: No Child isn’t a perfect law. But then, nothing created by man ever is. But in decade since its passage, No Child’s accountability provisions have revealed the depths of the nation’s education crisis, helped advocates and researchers push states into revising inflated graduation rates (and embracing more-honest numbers), and has been the catalyst for the very reforms Duncan and Obama are now pushing. For the administration to gut the very tool they need for continuing their reform doesn’t make sense; it will kibosh the very admirable successes Duncan and Obama have achieved so far. As seen so far today with the administration’s allies (including the Education Trust and DFER) asking Congress to keep accountability in place, the statement by former House education committee chairman George Miller arguing against the move, and opposition from other circles (including conservative reformers who don’t want their efforts to get states to voluntarily support Common Core tied up in the waiver gambit), Duncan’s move looks even less smart and more-counterproductive to his goals.
And given that few on either side of the debate over the reform of American public education are supportive of the waiver gambit, it would be best for the administration to step away from this blunder and work on expanding accountability.