Earlier this month, Dropout Nation mentioned the dismay among the Civil Rights faction of the school reform movement over the Obama administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions. Particularly vexing to these groups is that the administration has essentially let some of the 33 states allowed to ignore federal law to game their graduation rates. Indiana, Louisiana, and South Dakota, for example, can count General Education Development certificates in their graduation rate calculations, in spite of decades of evidence that has long-ago showed that GEDs are not what comedian Chris Rock once called good enough diplomas, and that the ex-dropouts who gain GEDs fare as badly as dropouts who never go back for such shoddy credentials. The administration is also allowing graduation rates account for fewer than a third of performance on the respective accountability indexes of waiver states — and in the case of Kentucky, just 14 percent of performance. As a result, dropout factories will be allowed to slip under the radar, a troublesome issue given that the footprint of accountability is already being shrunk to only the worst five percent of schools and at least 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps.
So it is no surprise that George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee (and one of the tireless defenders of No Child’s accountability provisions), has issued a letter last week demanding that U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan re-work the waivers to make sure that states accurately report graduation rates. Miller’s letter likely comes after a lack of response from the Department of Education on addressing the concerns among civil rights school reformers, who have long opposed the waiver gambit. Earlier this year, concerns raised by the National Indian Education Association over the lack of consultation by states with American Indian tribes (which is often required both by the U. S. Constitution and in state treaties with tribes) was met with a letter from federal officials that did little to address any of the organization’s concerns. [Through his outside work, Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle advises NIEA on communications.] Similar concerns expressed by other reform groups have also been met with little response from the administration.
But the administration may have to take more robust action this time around. Last month, the administration scrambled to get Virginia to scrap its low expectations for poor and minority children amid outcry from reformers and civil rights activists over the Old Dominion’s move to approve AMO targets that only require districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) are proficient in math by 2016-2017; those targets were blessed by the administration back in June as part of its approval of the state’s waiver proposal. More outcry is likely to come in the coming months as reformers and civil rights activists in D.C., Tennessee and other states learn how the waiver gambit has essentially allowed states to damn children through the soft bigotry of low expectations. [Dropout Nation has been hitting upon the consequences of the Obama administration's waiver gambit since last year.]
There’s also the reality for the administration that the waiver gambit has not been a showcase for its approach to systemic reform. The process has been absolutely sloppy. The administration is granting waivers in spite of concerns raised by its own peer review process. D.C.’s waiver request was granted in spite of concerns 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. Mississippi’s waiver was granted in spite of concerns that the Magnolia State had no intention of raising the cut scores for the new standardized tests it will implement as part of its transition to Common Core.
Meanwhile the Obama administration is granting waivers to states (and allowing them to ignore whole sections of No Child) even thought they have not yet implemented or enacted all the proposals within their applications. Oregon, Michigan, Kansas, and New York State have gained waivers without either having put their teacher evaluation plans in place or rolling them out beyond a pilot stage; this leaves 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. This is already proving to be the case in the Empire State, where AFT affiliates in New York City and Buffalo have refused to strike agreements with districts on implementing the state’s new evaluation system. This is particularly worrisome because the administration doesn’t have any real ability to enforce these provisions or punish states for not fulfilling their promises; and a blow-up will be especially troublesome for President Barack Obama as he fights a tough re-election campaign against Republican nominee Mitt Romney (whose school reform agenda differs little from that of the current office-holder).
With a fellow Democrat in Miller raising even more questions about the waiver gambit — especially after giving the Obama administration cover over questions about the legality of the entire process — Duncan will likely have to call up chief school officers of waiver states to work out these issues. This will be especially important because one of the great successes of No Child was that its focus on graduation rates as an indicator of school and district performance led researchers such as Jay P. Greene, Robert Balfanz, and Christopher Swanson (now of Editorial Projects in Education, the parent of Education Week) to expose how states were artificially inflating how many children were actually leaving high school with a diploma and hiding the nation’s dropout crisis. The results of their research (and coverage of the crisis) is that states are now reporting more accurate graduation numbers. Allowing states to backslide into covering up the failures of districts and schools will set back efforts to transform American public education. And that’s not good for Obama, Duncan or their respective legacies, which have already been stained by their move to allow for states to embrace what predecessor George W. Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids.
The problem is that forcing states to report graduation rates accurately plays into the criticism of the waiver gambit lobbed by conservative reformers that it ends up being a bureaucratic process in which participating states have as little supposed flexibility as they did under No Child. While the argument has little substance (especially given that No Child itself allowed states plenty of flexibility to meet the law’s goals), it plays well with movement conservative being riled up by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (who has his own plans for eviscerating No Child and essentially giving states the kind of free hand they had before the passage of the law 11 years ago that led to wasteful spending that did little to improve student achievement). But the administration may have no choice: Even though President Obama is likely to win re-election, it is still slim odds, and he needs to keep his school reform allies close. It would be much better if the administration just abandoned this counterproductive gambit all together.