As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written.
Under the Obama plan, states will be allowed to evade the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision with a vague set of “ambitious but achievable goals” and an equally amorphous requirement that states must put “college and career-ready” curriculum standards in place. Many surmise the latter means implementing Common Core standards in reading and math — something that 45 states have done so far. But Duncan has had to avoid making such a public statement means in order to avoid the full wrath of congressional Republicans and some reformers who essentially declare that doing so oversteps the Department of Education’s authority. As a result, a state can probably come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and easily get it past federal officials.
The rest of the proposed waiver standards, as being unveiled today by the administration, simply point to a full retreat on accountability. States will be able to allow all but 15 percent of the nation’s schools receiving Title 1 funds (including the 5,000 dropout factories and failure mills) to fully avoid accountability. Certainly, the administration wants states to focus on schools that either have “low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance” to be subjected to scrutiny. But there’s no way that the administration can mandate this without reducing the flexibility it argues that the waivers will give. So the merely poor-performing schools — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — will largely be left alone.
Essentially, Obama’s waiver plan amounts to the gutting of accountability. Like the plan offered up last week by Senate Republicans, the waivers don’t address the need to overhaul ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines. The waiver plan doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability (and thus, addressing the crisis of low educational attainment among young men of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds) on their own. But the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis.
The waivers don’t require states to set a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — that would give teachers and principals honest data that they can then use in keeping kids in school. Right now, only two states — California and Indiana — offer some sort of breakdown of chronic truancy data, and that’s not good enough. As for school choice and Parent Power? Not even a consideration.
The waivers, in short, aren’t worth anything when it comes to spurring systemic reform. The Obama plan is a step back, only slightly better than what congressional Republicans and their Senate counterparts are offering.
As Dropout Nation pointed out at the time of Duncan’s announcement in June, this move has weakened the administration’s hand without moving forward its reform agenda. With the waivers, Duncan will give the NEA, the AFT, suburban districts, and congressional Republicans what they really want — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. They won’t have to face a full public debate over what this step would mean for addressing the nation’s education crisis and the consequences of laying out their positions in full view. Duncan’s move also allows them to argue that the Obama administration has already ditched accountability while also declaring that the college- and career-ready standards it wants states to put into place in exchange for “flexibility” is unconstitutional because it steps on congressional authority. And for reform-minded governors who have wielded No Child effectively (along with Race to the Top) to push through their own reforms? They are on their own.
In the process, Obama won’t gain traction for the rest of his school reform agenda. Congressional Republicans will not only use this move to bolster their efforts to keep control of the House, they will also refuse to pass any other reform measure Obama offers up. The gutting of AYP is largely unpopular among centrist and liberal Democrat allies such as the Education Trust and congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, as well as by Republicans such as No Child mastermind Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education. It is reviled among conservative reformers such as Rick Hess and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — which, by the way, want to gut No Child themselves, but want to put their stamp on it. Supporters and foes of Common Core standards, who still believe that Obama will tacitly require states to embrace those standards in exchange for receiving waivers, are also dismayed by the waiver effort; particularly among conservative supporters of Common Core, they can no longer dodge accusations that the standards will lead to the creation of national curricula. (Whether or not that is a bad thing, given the low quality of curricula and standards throughout the nation, is a whole different matter entirely.)
This doesn’t bold well for Obama’s re-election prospects. After all, education reform was one of the few issues on which he had bipartisan support. While the president can point to some real successes, those achievements are muffled by a weakening of school reform efforts and ultimately, a set of decisions that have essentially declared to black and Latino constituencies concerned with reforming education that their children are not worthy of concern.
And let’s be clear: Despite what Obama and Duncan may declare, the decision to gut AYP essentially declares that federal education policy is no longer concerned with improving education for the very poor and minority children, be they black, white, Latino or Asian, who were poorly served by America’s traditional public schools before No Child’s passage a decade ago.
No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through AYP, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.
And now, there is no real focus at the federal level on improving education for all children, including our poorest children and those from minority communities. Certainly, reformers may be able to keep pressing in states and districts throughout the country. But there won’t be much in the way of federal support. Given that America is increasingly a majority-minority country, retreating on accountability isn’t the smartest decision for the nation’s future.
Let’s give Obama and Duncan credit for Race to the Top and some of their other reform efforts, which have spurred major systemic reform over the past couple of years. But on the matter of No Child, it is clear Obama and his education secretary have failed where his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his education point people) certainly and laudably succeeded.