The Obama administration just can’t any relief from the headaches it has caused itself with its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures. From the embarrassment of approving abysmally low — and Plessy v. Ferguson-like — proficiency targets (including that for Virginia, which had only required districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students and 65 percent of Latino peers were proficient in math by 2016-2017), to complaints from House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Minority Member George Miller and civil rights-based reformers about how the administration allowed states such as South Dakota to count General Education Development certificates in their graduation rate calculations (and minimize graduation rates as a factor in accountability measures), the administration finds itself contending with complaints from civil rights-based reformers as well as from centrist Democrats finally acknowledging the high cost of their push for revamping No Child at any cost.
So it isn’t exactly shocking to see U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s move yesterday to issue a letter to state school superintendents in waiver states asking them to “incorporate, to a significant degree” more-accurate graduation rate data as part of the hodgepodge of new accountability systems approved under the waiver gambit. Admitting by omission that the administration was letting states slide (and responding to the pressure from Miller and others about this oversight), Duncan wrote in the letter that he wants these states to use the new Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate calculation developed by the Bush administration four years ago and unveiled earlier this week with the release of new federal graduation rate data.
But as Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform notes today, the letter doesn’t actually mean much of anything, largely because Duncan isn’t requesting those states — including the most-egregious offenders, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Indiana (the last of which should know better) — to revise how they calculate graduation rates for accountability purposes, or to make graduation rates a more-important factor in their accountability indexes. It isn’t as if Duncan can’t make this happen; in September, Virginia ended up revising its proficiency targets after the Obama administration was sufficiently embarrassed by civil rights activists and reformers over its earlier approval. Simply put, Duncan is doing nothing but issuing meaningless paper that state superintendents already know means nothing. And given that the Obama administration has shown a willingness to ignore congressional critics of the waiver gambit (including Miller and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, who, despite his protests, benefits greatly from the evisceration of No Child), reformers and activists in those states will have to organize on the ground and battle to make graduation rates more accurate.
In short, reformers are back to where they started a decade ago, when No Child’s emphasis on graduation rates as one of the two main indicators of state, district, and school performance in improving student achievement led to a flurry of research and reports revealing how inflated graduation rates hid the extent of the nation’s education crisis. Thanks to No Child, the work of researchers such as Robert Balfanz, Jay P. Greene, and Christopher Swanson, the efforts of policymakers such as former Indiana Commissioner of Higher Education Stan Jones and Congressman-Elect Luke Messer, and the National Governors Association, states revamped their graduation rate calculations and admitted the abysmal state of American public education. Those efforts, in turn, led the Bush administration to implement ACGR, which is what states will have to report to the federal government.
But thanks to the Obama administration’s waiver gambit, states can report one set of graduation rates to the nation, while using inaccurate calculations for accountability purposes. The consequences go beyond the likely result in dropout factories and mediocre-performing high schools to not be held accountable at all. For families and researchers, this means less-accurate and useful data for making decisions and understanding what is happening in schools for our kids.
But none of this has been shocking. The entire waiver process was sloppily administered in the first place, with Duncan 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, and the administration ignoring concerns raised by its own peer review panels about such matters as how states have ignored the need to gain consultation on proposed changes from American Indian tribes as required under the U.S. Constitution (as well as from black and Latino communities equally affected by the evisceration of accountability). The fact that the gambit has resulted in 35 different accountability systems — the very thing Duncan deceptively accused No Child of doing — has led to an even bigger mess that cannot be fixed easily; the evisceration of No Child has also made it easier for traditionalists and Kline to push to ditch the law altogether because the administration has all but done so for them.
Aiding and abetting the mess were centrist Democrat reform allies — save for a few such as Andy Rotherham — were willing to either remain silent or become cheerleaders for the waiver gambit in spite of its obvious (and not-so-obvious) consequences in order to help President Barack Obama retain office. The fact that some organizations even went so far as to push for aspects of the waiver gambit that have led to states defining proficiency down for poor and minority kids has also made them vulnerable to accusations from traditionalists that they care little for children while making it more difficult for allies to support them in other ways. All in all, counterproductive to advancing systemic reform that our children need and deserve so they can be connected to brighter futures.
Duncan can issue all the letters he wants. But if he and the administration truly want to make sure states report accurate graduation rates, then he will have to take stronger action. Right now.