Within the past year, the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act has done plenty of damage to efforts to advance systemic reform and help all children get high-quality education. The move by the administration to allow 34 states and the District of Columbia to evade No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision, as well as ditch the 100 percent proficiency target (which is really 92 percent or so once all the legal exceptions are in place) with supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” goals, has led to an embrace of soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids that reformers have long opposed. As a result, many states (most-notably Virginia and Florida) have defined proficiency down, setting low expectations for districts and schools to improve the achievement of the poor and minority kids in their care. And in the process, the Obama administration has implicitly accepted the soft bigotry of low expectations long a part of American public education that is an underlying reason why so many children have been condemned to poverty and prison for so long.

transformersSo it is amazing, bewildering even, to read U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declare in a letter to California Board of Education Chairman Michael Kirst that he was rejecting the Golden State’s effort to gain a No Child waiver because it failed to meet what he considers to be a “high bar”.

Certainly the plan offered up by Kirst and Supt. Tom Torlakson was nothing more than an effort to gain the federal government’s blessing to evade systemic reform that began two years ago when Kirst, Torlakson, and once-and-future governor Jerry Brown took their respective jobs. It is also clear that Golden State officials should be embarrassed for such retreats from helping all students succeed such as the abolition of a state law requiring districts and schools to teach Algebra 1 to middle schoolers by eighth grade (and help those kids get the college preparatory curricula they need). Yet the fact that Duncan declares that California’s plan failed to meet the administration’s “high bar”, especially when the U.S. Department of Education blessed equally lackluster plans from the likes of Virginia, is laughable at best.

Duncan’s statement is even more ridiculous given the stated reason why the administration rejected the waiver request: The lack of an overhauled teacher evaluation system that features the use of objective student test score growth data in performance management. It is admirable that Duncan is still pushing strong for teacher quality reform, and it is sensible that the administration doesn’t bless the continued insistence of the Golden State’s legislature and political leadership on doing the bidding of the National Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ affiliates there. But the fact that the administration has granted waivers to states as New York, Oregon, Michigan, and Kansas, which have either yet to fully implement the evaluation overhauls they promised or just rolling them out in a pilot stage, makes one wonder how serious it is about truly revamping how teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated, and compensated. Especially given that at least one state, New York, is still battling with the AFT’s Empire State affiliates to put the evaluations into place. By only citing the lack of a teacher evaluation overhaul plan in rejecting California’s waiver request, one can also speculate as to whether the administration would lower the bar further if Golden State officials only played along with its plans.

One wouldn’t blame Kirst, Torlakson, or Brown if they responded to Duncan’s letter by pointing out the various failings of the waiver gambit such far. There’s the administration’s willingness to grant waivers in spite of the concerns of peer review panels it appointed to vet those proposals about the failures of states such as New Mexico to consult with American Indian tribes as required under the waiver process (as well as under the U.S. Constitution, and other federal and state laws). The threesome could also point to how the Obama administration’s blessing of Plessy v. Ferguson‘s-like proficiency targets that has already stoked the ire of civil rights activists and more-sensible reformers throughout the country (and in the Old Dominion, thoroughly embarrassed the administration enough to force the state to set higher expectations). Kirst, Torlakson, and Brown can even argue that the Obama administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth. It’s rather ridiculous for the Duncan to call out California to not meeting a high standard that is both arbitrary and not all that exacting based on the evidence.

Of course, this would also put the threesome on the spot for their lack of leadership on the education front. But then, both California’s officials and the Obama administration have proven less than stellar in asserting the kind of leadership needed to beat back low expectations for our children.