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As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the Obama administration has granted waivers to 33 states allowing them to ditch the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability provisions that have spurred a decade of strong reforms. From where this publication sits, the gambit, as much driven by the arrogant desire of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan to put their full stamp on federal education policy as the lack of movement by Congress on its reauthorization, is absolutely counterproductive to reform. The decision by the administration to limit accountability to the worst-performing five percent of schools (along with at least 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps) will allow warehouses of mediocrity off the hook for providing high-quality education to all children regardless of background. Just as importantly, the Obama administration’s process has proven to be anything but thoughtful and methodical. And as Editor RiShawn Biddle made clear last week, the single-biggest flaw in the waiver gambit lies in how the administration has allowed states to lower expectations for districts and schools, allowing for cultures of low expectations to denigrate the futures of poor and minority children. Others, including CNN commentator and school principal Dr. Steve Perry, have also taken aim at the waiver gambit for similar reasons.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Sandy Kress, who as adviser to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, helped craft No Child (and helped mastermind the first waive of reforms in Texas), offers his thoughts on the Obama administration’s waiver gambit — and how both President Obama and Secretary Duncan will have to take responsibility for the consequences of their counterproductive effort. Read, consider, comment, and take action. 

Like so many other fans of sport, I watch the Olympics these days with great enthusiasm. For me, it’s particularly interesting to study the personal story behind the gold medal winners. Whether it’s the American women gymnasts or Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin or Usain Bolt or any of the other champions, I’m really fascinated by what makes winners tick. These winners seem to have set a clear goal, worked hard against obstacles for years to achieve the goal, and, with a whole lot of talent, persisted through remarkable competition to come out on top.

Yet, when it comes to the sport in education of “dummying down” standards, we have a very unusual story around the gold medal winners in both the last and the current competitions. In this sport, the champions actually claimed others won and tried to give them the medal. The story here is extremely unusual – to say the least.

You see – the champions in this sport are Team Obama, led by their superstar, Arne Duncan.

Although Duncan actually won individual gold in the last competition, as we’ll discuss in a moment, he claimed the medal should have gone to the No Child Left Behind Act and its proponents. He wanted people to believe that the law caused states to lower their standards because they might be punished for not meeting higher standards.

All the major studies on the subject showed that performance standards across the country generally stayed pretty much the same during No Child. Some states toughened; some, lightened. But the theoretical concern that the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions drove states to avoid the pinch of accountability by dumbing-down their standards proved to be myth, not fact.

Yet, how many times have you heard Duncan try to give the medal he won to No Child?

In reality, Duncan won the last gold medal in this sport when he was superintendent in Chicago. We’ve learned from all reliable sources that Illinois was one of the states that did dumb down after No Child and that Chicago’s short term “gains” were largely due to that artificial boost.

So, when the podium was set up for the awarding of the medal, it should come as no surprise that the one who was taking credit for the “Chicago Miracle” didn’t show up to be honored.

But success back then pales in comparison to the slew of medals Team Obama will earn for dumbing-down standards through the waivers they’re now granting.

Dropout Nation and its editor, RiShawn Biddle, has documented well beyond what I can do in this short essay all the many ways in which disadvantaged kids will lose out under newly lower standards. But what I want to do here is look out into the future and predict the vast consequences this dumbing down of standards will wreak on disadvantaged students for years to come.

Remember that there are modest, general waivers that could have been granted this year and next, providing the states limited relief from the burdensome features of No Child, while holding the line on accountability. But Team Obama chose against these options and instead decided to go for the gold. The Team approved waivers that dramatically lower the bar, hide subgroups in supergroups, and allow schools that aren’t at the absolute bottom of the barrel to go off the radar screen as to consequences. Some states have responded more responsibly than others. But several poor proposals have been approved, and generally the bar is way down and most of the pressure to do better is off.

Here’s the nightmare prediction I want to make: the feds will not have the will or the power to hold states to the promises they’ve made. Further, some states that agreed to tougher standards will wonder why they should be forced to live with standards higher than other states with weaker standards that also got the waivers. Over time, the promises will melt away, and, in most states, performance standards will be significantly lower for disadvantaged students than the modest bar set by No Child. There are leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties at the local, state, and federal levels who want this to happen. That’s one of the reasons why it probably will.

Some will hide the ugly reality behind improved content standards. And the rhetoric about getting all children to college readiness will abound. But make no mistake: these waivers will pave the way for a lowering of accountability standards for the children federal assistance was designed to help.

And so for their success at leading us back to accountability policy in place before the Improving America’s Schools Act, the gold medal for dumbing-down standards for these kids goes, with no other team close, to Team Obama.

The medals will be awarded when the trajectory of NAEP scores for disadvantaged students begins to head down for the first time since the mid-90s. Will Duncan and his teammates show up to be honored this time? I suspect not.