Obama and Duncan Waive Goodbye to Systemic Reform
There is almost nothing good to say about the Obama administration’s decision; to allow 10 of 11 states to evade the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s just that simple. It is as if President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided to toss away their legacies as school reformers — and more importantly, the goal of helping all kids succeed in school and life.
The fact that the administration allowed nine states, including Indiana and Florida, to ditch racial, ethnic, and economic subgroup categories and replace them with a super-subgroup that commingles poor and minority students into one, Obama and Duncan simply declared that states and districts no longer have to concern themselves with either accounting for their academic achievement or for their economic success. While Indiana, in particular, declares that it will continue to monitor AYP, the reality is that it is essentially abandoned since, unless a lawsuit or congressional action forces the administration to abandon the waiver effort, the states receiving the waiver won’t have to give it much attention.
Even worse, allowing the states to engage in this super-subgroup subterfuge — along with ditching AYP altogether — essentially makes it difficult or parents and others who need clear, accurate data for making decisions; for researchers in particular, the administration’s decision hinders their ability to learn how schools are serving children. For parents — especially black, Latino, and Asian families who are joining the middle class for the first time and moving into suburbia — the importance of knowing how schools actually handle students worst-served by American public education (including low expectations) is critical to doing all they can to keep their youngsters out of the economic and social abyss. Researchers also lose out because they no longer have comparable data across states that they can use in understanding how districts and schools are serving children.
Meanwhile the administration failed to use the process to deal critically with one of the most-persistent symptoms of the nation’s education crisis: The high levels of academic failure among young black, white, Latino, Asian, and American Indian men. Just two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, will account for gender in their accountability systems, following along the lines of the suggestions made by Richard Whitmire and I last year. Considering the extent of the problem — including the fact that young men account for two out of every three students aged 5 to 21 relegated to special ed ghettos, and that young male high-school seniors of all races from college-educated households read a grade level behind their female peers– the fact that the U.S. Department of Education didn’t even demand states to address it in any meaningful way is shameful.
To say that the Obama-Duncan waiver gambit is a rolling back of accountability is an understatement. While not as bad as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s proposals (which essentially amount to going back to the lax conditions of the pre-No Child era), the waiver approach allows for states to merely focus on failure mills and dropout factories. This means mediocre suburban schools will not be held accountable for improving achievement among poor and minority students — or even improving teaching and curricula for the rest of their students.
At the same time, the fact that all but one of the states were approved for waivers raises questions as to whether the administration is more concerned about offsetting its well-deserved reputation for expanding regulations (and federal overreach) in other arenas. After all, Obama can now go on the re-election trail and claim that he is providing states flexibility to engage in their own reform efforts — even though No Child (and moves by federal officials in both the president’s administration and that of predecessor George W. Bush) allowed states to develop their own ways of meeting federal proficiency and accountability goals. Especially in light of Duncan’s own decision allow Virginia to set its proficiency targets retroactively (along with the gamesmanship predecessor Rod Paige allowed states in meeting No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision, and the four decades of profligate and unaccounted spending of federal subsidies before the passage of No Child 11 years ago), one can say that the federal government has allowed states and districts to game the system for far too long.
(By the way: The reality of the gamesmanship also proves that arguments that No Child is too inflexible — one advanced by education traditionalists and by some reformers like Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is mere hogwash.)
The administration also hasn’t covered itself in glory through its rhetoric. Within the past year, Duncan has gone around insisting that No Child is broken, offering up estimates that as many as 90 percent of schools would be found failing under the law and that its aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision was wrongly labeling otherwise high-performing schools. Reformers such as Charlie Barone of Democrats For Education Reform and Andy Rotherham, and the Center on Education Policy’s latest report on No Child have proven that Duncan’s estimates were nothing but smoke.
Obama and Duncan essentially made a play for winning re-election without considering any of the consequences, either to children or to the president’s own reputation and re-election prospects.
Given that otherwise strong and laudable efforts in education reform — including Race to the Top — are the ones that have generally been applauded across political lines, Obama’s move to gut No Child will hurt his prospects for re-election among those reformers who have argued strongly against the move. They aren’t likely to vote for any of the Republican presidential aspirants. But they will likely stay home in November. And given the failure of Obama’s stimulus efforts in overcoming the current economic malaise and the ire over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the president can’t afford to lose any voter support — either among reformers in the civil rights and centrist Democrat camps or among Republican reformers otherwise lukewarm about their party’s potential standard-bearers. The fact that the waiver process has not been transparent, along with complaints among movement conservatives and conservative reformers that the administration’s requirement that waiver states take steps toward a national curricula, guarantees that more Republicans and independents will come out to the polls on Election Day to vote Obama out.
Meanwhile there is the question of whether the Obama administration can even offer waivers in the first place. While the U.S. Department of Education The department can allow some adjustments that remain in the spirit of the law (even if not necessarily in the letter of it), and has done so in the past. For example, two states — Arkansas and North Carolina — were granted waivers that allowed them to use test score growth over time as part of their school accountability efforts. But the Obama waiver plan allows states to evade accountability and ignore federal law, while the college- and career-ready standards requirements set by the administration as a condition for getting the waivers (which in the minds of many conservatives essentially endorses Common Core State Standards already enacted in 46 states and D.C.) could be considered a violation of federal law banning the Department of Education from crafting national curricula.
Ultimately, as Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam within past nine months, the Obama administration’s No Child waiver gambit weakens the decade of strong reform efforts which the law has helped usher. It has also undermined Obama’sotherwise strong and commendable record as School Reformer-in-Chief. And for kids, especially those from poor and minority households for whom American public education has relegated educational neglect and malpractice the most, they will suffer the most from the consequences of Obama’s and Duncan’s faulty action.