One of the biggest problems with the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s powerful accountability provisions is that it has approved proposals that feature initiatives that are either in pilot stages, or haven’t been fully implemented. These include plans by states such as New York, Oregon, and Michigan to replace traditional subjective teacher evaluations that did little to measure how well teachers were doing to improve student achievement with ones that featured the use of objective student test score growth data. The problem with the administration’s move is that because the plans weren’t already implemented, they could still be scuttled by opposition from National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates who have long opposed them, or rendered useless by any changes in the political headwinds; the administration would have essentially allowed states to evade responsibility for holding districts accountable for providing all children with high-quality education without gaining anything in return. And in the process, the administration weakens the decade of strong reform efforts which No Child’s accountability provisions helped usher — including the very initiatives it has pushed since Barack took office four years ago.
This consequences of this shoddy policymaking began coming home to roost yesterday when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that it would allow the 37 states already granted waivers under the administration’s gambit a one-year moratorium from fully implementing teacher evaluation systems they promised to put into place. Yes, the administration is granting another waiver — this time, for states to supposedly temporarily shirk away from their promises — on top of the original waiver that allows states to essentially evade federal law. Driven in part by struggles in states such as New York over the roll out of new tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards whose results will be used in the teacher evaluation systems, the anxiety over the roll out of Common Core-aligned tests by PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment coalitions of states, and the overall battle over the implementation of Common Core itself and the increasing scrutiny of the waiver process from House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, Duncan has decided to embrace AFT President Randi Weingarten’s call last month to hold off on fully rolling out the exams.
Under the plan, states would have to apply for this new waiver in the same way they did for the original No Child waiver; the waiver could last until 2016-2017 (or a year after the Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessments are rolled out). But this shouldn’t be all that hard to do because the Obama Administration hasn’t set a high bar for granting them. Given how Duncan and his staff at the U.S. Department of Education have granted No Child waivers in spite of concerns raised by the peer review panel it put into place, it would be laughable to expect the administration to give the test waiver requests strict scrutiny. Duncan would probably grant a waiver request to any state so long as the governor does a shuck-and-jive.
Certainly the Obama Administration’s move is a victory for Weingarten and one that she needed in order to satisfy Baby Boomers within the union’s rank-and-file (as well as hardcore progressives among traditionalists outside of the union). After all, they have criticized Weingarten and the AFT leadership for their longstanding support of Common Core (which they oppose because of the involvement of private-sector interests such as the Gates Foundation in shaping the standards, and because Common Core will also push teachers to move away from the longstanding practice of crafting their own curricula without any high-quality North Star to guide their efforts), as well as for the national union’s move to support marginal use of student test score growth data in evaluations. The fact that the new Common Core-aligned assessments may be even better at assessing student performance (and thus, more-accurate in evaluating teacher performance) also didn’t make these traditionalists happy. Duncan’s move also gives her another opportunity to beat back reforms such as ending near-lifetime employment that threaten the AFT’s mission of keeping teaching the public sector profession most-insulated from performance management.
Duncan’s move is also a win for Common Core opponents — including movement conservatives generally uninterested in education and traditionalists — who have also succeeded in temporarily delaying full implementation of the standards in Indiana and Michigan. Because Duncan now letting states temporarily off the hook for the full roll out of tests that are also critical to the full implementation of Common Core, opponents — especially in Republican-dominated states such as Florida and Tennessee — can now press for governors and legislators to halt other aspects of implementation, and ultimately, stop the effort altogether. For the purposes of political expediency, Common Core opponents could also end up joining cause with NEA and AFT affiliates to stop implementation of the new teacher evaluation systems altogether. Both could draw upon the views of otherwise-sensible conservative reformers opposed to the standards such as Jay P. Greene, who have expressed opposition to the push by other reformers and the Obama Administration to use student test score growth data in teacher evaluations because they think it would stop the development of other forms of evaluations.
This is none too pleasing to the school reform movement as a whole. For teacher quality reform advocates, the moratorium is a new obstacle in what has up to this point been a successful decade-long effort to overhaul how teacher performance is measured and rewarded. While student score growth data will end up being included in the evaluations, any delay in doing so gives traditionalists opportunities to stop efforts altogether. Centrist Democrats whose impatience over the long-stalled reauthorization of No Child led to the Obama Administration taking up the waiver gambit in the first place, are annoyed that the administration’s plan to grant states a moratorium through another waiver process will add even more incoherence to federal education policy. As is, centrist Democrats are now forced to admit that the waiver gambit has gutted the strong accountability — and the data on district and school performance — needed to advance systemic reform, with most of the 37 new accountability systems put in place that allow districts and schools to ignore poor and minority kids, and render them invisible altogether. Observes Time columnist Andy Rotherham: “It’s hard to argue the No Child policy… was not cleaner than what we have now.”
Meanwhile reform-minded governors and chief state school officers, even in states well ahead of schedule on implementing Common Core and the tests, now have to tangle with traditionalists and Common Core foes now armed with a weapon for opposing systemic reform. While it is nice of Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to declare that the Sunshine State won’t ask the Obama Administration to grant it a moratorium on incorporating test data into evaluations, the reality is that he can’t count on support from Gov. Rick Scott, who has proven this year that he is quite wobbly on advancing reform (and has a re-election race about which he must be concerned). Nor does the moratorium helped New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King in their two-year effort to put the state’s new evaluation system into place; AFT affiliates such as those in New York City, which have refused to allow districts to put the evaluation systems in place, and don’t like King’s plan to unilaterally implement them, are likely to remind Gov. Cuomo that he should apply for a moratorium lest he find himself without their support for either his re-election campaign next year or his likely push for the Democratic presidential nomination three years from now.
The moratorium has made Obama’s waiver gambit even messier than it already is. But no one should be shocked by how terrible the effort is turning out.
As Dropout Nation has made clear over the past two years, the Obama Administration’s evisceration of No Child weakened systemic reform by taking away from reformers (including governors and legislators) the leverage they needed to beat back opposition from traditionalist. In eviscerating AYP, and allowing states such as Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia to enact Plessy v. Ferguson-like race- and class-based socioeconomic targets (including the so-called Cut the Gap in Half approach structured by the Education Trust), the administration has allowed states to define proficiency down that damage poor and minority kids with low expectations. 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. The administration’s move to allow states to evade federal law in exchange for promising to enact and implement “college and career-ready” standards (including Common Core) will not work because it cannot by law force states to follow up on its promise by putting actual curricula in place; because of opposition to implementation of Common Core, states may decide to substitute those standards with less-than-comprehensive curricula rules that may be even worse than what states had put in place before Common Core was developed. And by eviscerating accountability, the administration has granted traditionalists, as well as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander exactly what they wanted without having to actually do the job themselves.
What a tangled web the Obama Administration has weaved for itself and the school reform movement. That’s what happens when an administration engages in slipshod policymaking, and reformers remain silent throughout the process. Instead of laying out its “thinking” as Duncan tried to do yesterday on the administration’s behalf, he and the president should scratch the gambit altogether. And then, hope it can cobble together a bipartisan coalition to develop a new version of No Child better than what the House and Senate have each put on the table.