There are only two good things that can be said about today’s announcement by the Obama administration that it is granting waivers to D.C., Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon, and South Carolina. The first? That the Arizona waiver plan may actually come close to being one that is worthy of any consideration, mostly because it maintains the aspirational 100 percent proficiency target for all schools (albeit by 2019), and uses a version of the A-to-F grading system that maintains AYP’s subgroup accountability. The second is that the Obama administration admitted in a conference call with reporters yesterday that it is essentially winging it when it comes to granting waivers to states that have not yet implemented or enacted all the proposals within their applications. When asked about why it granted Oregon a waiver even though its proposed teacher evaluation overhaul is not even in place (and would still be in a pilot phase), U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin said that it was because the state “committed to student growth”, and not because there was a real plan in place.
This statement, along with the fact that eight states have now receive waivers without actually having done the job of implementation (and that the Obama administration granted Virginia a waiver last week despite the Old Dominion’s unwillingness to undertake any aggressive reform), once again raises two of the biggest concerns about the administration’s waiver gambit in practice.
The first? That the administration seems not to be paying attention to what is happening inside the states to which waivers have been granted. The fact that Oregon, Michigan and Kansas have gained waivers without either having put their teacher evaluation plans in place or rolling them out beyond a pilot stage (and thus leaving the possibility that the plans will be scuttled by opposition from National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates generally opposed to using objective student performance data in performance reviews) shows that the administration has lowered the high bar for reform it had set for earlier rounds of Race to the Top and other efforts.
The second: That the administration is granting waivers in spite of the concerns of those reviewing the requests. Those reviewing D.C.’s waiver request were concerned that its transition plan to embrace Common Core math and reading standards was not “realistic and of high quality”, and lacked a “high-quality plan” for ensuring that English Language Learners and special ed students could get strong, comprehensive, college[preparatory curricula. There’s little evidence that D.C. addressed those concerns in a substantive way. Peer reviewers were also concerned that Mississippi had no intention of raising the cut scores for the new standardized tests it will implement as part of its transition to Common Core; the Magnolia State still didn’t address that issue in its revised proposal. This, along with the approval of conditional waivers for states that haven’t yet approved or put their proposals in place beyond a pilot stage, and the haphazard speediness of the administration’s review of the proposals, makes one wonder why it is bothering with this process at all.
Meanwhile the administration isn’t even taking opportunities to use the process to encourage states to expand school choice, enact Parent Trigger and other Parent Power provisions, or address the crisis of low education achievement among young men of all backgrounds. If anything, the waiver process has been useless on all these fronts. The administration’s decision to allow states to ignore No Child’s school choice and supplemental education services provisions (which districts have always found ways to get around) has left poor and minority households in failing districts without robust charter school and voucher-driven private school sectors with fewer options.
None of this, however, is shocking. As Dropout Nation has made clear since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced this gambit last year (and brought up again in this week’s critique of New America Foundation scholar Kevin Carey’s analysis of No Child’s legacy), this effort to eviscerate No Child and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision is a stain on Obama’s and Duncan’s otherwise admirable legacy as school reformers. By effectively ditching AYP and the underlying goal of forcing states and districts to take responsibility for how they educate poor and minority kids, the administration weakens the decade of strong reform efforts which the law’s accountability provisions helped usher — including the very initiatives 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 10 percent or more 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. As a forthcoming study from University of Southern California professor Morgan Polikoff and graduate student Andrew McEachin suggest, focusing just on the lowest-performing schools may not work as a reform approach unless states put the right accountability systems in place; this is particularly problematic since many of the states receiving waivers are using A-to-F grading systems with super-subgroup accountability categories that lump all poor and minority students into one measure, allowing for schools that are doing poorly by those kids to escape scrutiny. 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.
Meanwhile the administration has weakened its own hand without moving forward its reform agenda. By granting the waivers, Obama and Duncan have granted longtime opponents of systemic reform and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline exactly what they really want — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. Although many of them, especially Kline and the movement conservatives to which he plays up, may find the entire process legally questionable (because states are being allowed to ignore whole sections of federal law), the waiver gambit also allows them to sidestep a full public debate over what ditching No Child would mean for addressing the nation’s education crisis, and deal with the consequences of laying out their positions in full view). By engaging in the waiver gambit, Obama and Duncan have also weakened the president’s record on the one aspect of his presidency that has been both the most-successful and has generally enjoyed bipartisan favor. This (along with the president’s woeful record on economic issues) has also helped Republican presidential nominee presumptive Mitt Romney stay apace even among his own stupendous political blunders (and overall reputation for being overly flexible on political positions).
At the pace the administration is going, it will grant nearly all states waivers from No Child by Election Day. For reformers, especially centrist Democrats whose impatience over reauthorizing No Child led to this gambit, this isn’t exactly a good thing. And for children? Even worse.