One could say that the Obama administration’s effort to ditch the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act had at least one good result: Connecticut is actually holding more of its schools accountable for the performance of poor and minority children in their care. The fact that the Nutmeg State will double the number of schools being watched to ensure that they improve student achievement, along with tripling the number of schools required to track how well English Language Learner students are performing was enough to get a paragraph in the U.S. Department of Education’s press release announcing the decision yesterday.
Yet a close look at the plans approved by the Obama administration raises questions about whether it should have moved to the very provisions that helped foster the conditions for advancing Race to the Top and other reform efforts.
As with the earlier granting of waivers to grant states, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems willing to allow states to put any form of accountability system in place even if it is unlikely to do the job intended. While Connecticut and North Carolina will explicitly maintain subgroup accountability — and thus offer transparency on the performance of poor and minority kids — the six other states receiving waivers are essentially using some form of the dreadful super-subgroup category that essentially lumps all poor and minority students into one and, based on the design of the rating system, may hide the true extent of how schools are failing or succeeding in helping all children (especially black, Latino, and Native students) succeed. While Rhode Island’s “Minority+Poverty” grouping will ultimately account for most of the 60 percent of performance ratings for elementary schools in the state, Louisiana’s A-F grading system doesn’t fully break down how minority students are faring, and Ohio was dinged by the star-studded group of education players reviewing the applications for its “inconsistencies” on how it will disaggregate performance for poor and minority groups for reporting and accountability.
As a result, families, communities, researchers and even political leaders in these respective states (along with those in nine of the 11 states that were granted waivers back in February) won’t have clear, accurate data for making decisions; for researchers in particular, the administration’s decision hinders their ability to learn how schools are serving children. As seen in New Mexico, which has A-to-F grading and received a waiver earlier this year, a school could get an A grade (and thus be rated exemplary) and still have wide racial, ethnic, economic, and gender achievement gaps. 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. Meanwhile researchers won’t have comparable data across states that they can use in understanding how districts and schools are serving children.
While Obama and Duncan have allowed states receiving the waivers to engage in subterfuge on student progress, they have also ignored the need to address the effects of the nation’s education crisis on young men of all backgrounds. Considering that young men make up three out of every five children who drop out, account for two out of every three students aged 5 to 21 relegated to special ed ghettos, and, among young men who are high school seniors, read a grade level behind their female peers, it would make sense to make sure that any new accountability system address those issues, something for which Richard Whitmire and I have argued over the past two years. Yet none of the states receiving waivers had a “gender” category that would show how districts and schools are working to help young men succeed — and the Obama administration let them off the hook for it.
Meanwhile the Department of Education also seems to have been paying lip-service to its own conditions for granting waivers. Ohio was granted a waiver even though it has not formally put a accountability system in place; while the feds can let the waiver lapse if the Buckeye State fails to put it in place, the reality is that it will likely escape scrutiny regardless of what it doesn’t do. Connecticut was granted a waiver even though much of the state’s reform efforts will only be in pilot stages that will only cover just a smattering of districts and the students they serve, leaving most of the state’s children still stuck with failure. This includes the new teacher evaluation pilot program that is part of the revised version of Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform package contained in what is now Public Law 116, which will only involve eight-to-10 districts; the fact that NEA and AFT affiliates are still opposed to this plan and are also battling reformers over another evaluation framework that uses student test score data that the unions had supported just several months earlier also raises questions as to whether Connecticut can actually earn the flexibility from federal accountability that has been gained through the waiver. By the way, this isn’t just true for Connecticut. The No Child waiver granted by Duncan to New York State, which is also based on its effort to put in place a more-comprehensive teacher evaluation system — in spite of the Empire State’s well-publicized struggles to put the system put into place in every district — especially in New York City and Buffalo, where AFT affiliates have strongly opposed it.
Then there is the fact that the waivers were granted in spite of the concerns of those reviewing the requests. Those reviewing New York State’s No Child waiver request were concerned that it was “unclear” whether the Empire State’s education agency had consulted American Indian tribes (whose children attend traditional district schools throughout the Upstate region) on any aspect of the waiver package; the Department of Education didn’t mention this in its letter to state officials regarding the reviewer’s feedback. This revelation won’t play well with Native groups (and other civil rights-based school reformers), which have already complained virulently that other states — including New Mexico and Oklahoma — didn’t bother to do this either. (The fact that there are no players from Native groups on any of the peer review panels also doesn’t help the administration, which needs all the help it can get from them for President Obama’s re-election effort.)
As Dropout Nation made clear earlier this year (and over the past year), the No Child waiver gambit is a stain on Obama’s and Duncan’s otherwise admirable legacy as school reformers. By effectively ditching No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, the administration weakens the decade of strong reform efforts which the law’s accountability provisions helped usher — including the very reforms Obama and Duncan have pushed under their watch. Eviscerating AYP also takes away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need them to be in order for overhauls to gain traction. By allowing states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 15 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps), the administration is also letting districts not under watch off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula; the fact that the administration is pushing states to enact and implement “college and career-ready” standards (including the Common Core’s reading and math guidelines) as a condition of the waiver is meaningless because it cannot by law force states to follow up on its promise by putting actual curricula in place.
The effort is also legally questionable. Although the Department of Education can allow some adjustments that remain in the spirit of the law (even if not necessarily in the letter of it), the Obama waiver plan’s goal of allowing states to evade accountability may violate both spirit and letter of federal law. So may 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. This question has given those opposed to Obama’s re-election a weapon in their efforts to sweep him out of office; it also makes it difficult for the president to accuse Republican rival Mitt Romney of being on the wrong side of reform.
By focusing on individual school improvement, the administration’s waiver gambit also ignores the reality that failure mills, dropout factories, and warehouses of mediocrity get that way because of the systemic dysfunction within the districts that run them. As reviewers noted with Maryland’s successful waiver, most of the failure mills that are going to be targeted under the state’s proposal are in Baltimore and Prince George’s County; forcing Maryland and other states to focus on district overhauls would make better sense.
Ultimately, for children — especially those from poor and minority households for whom American public education has relegated educational neglect and malpractice the most — the waiver gambit will damage efforts to give them the high-quality education they deserve. For this, Obama and Duncan should feel shame.