Over the past two years, Dropout Nation has been among the few publications and school reformers pointing out the folly of the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures. From detailing how the initiative overall would weaken the goals of forcing states and districts to take responsibility for how they educate poor and minority kids as well as incapacitate the decade of strong reform efforts which the law’s accountability provisions helped usher, to pointing out the administration’s shoddy policymaking practices (including granting waivers to states in spite of questions raised by those reviewing the proposals about whether the promises made would be fulfilled), it has long ago been clear to DN‘s editors that the gambit should have never been undertaken. And this publication’s warnings about the Obama Administration’s gambit have come to fruition over the past three months as it has begun threatening to end waivers for states such as Oregon and Oklahoma over their failures to implement promised reforms.
So it is nice to see the letter released this week by 13 groups, including StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform and Educators for Excellence calling out the Obama Administration for shoddy implementation of the waiver gambit and demanding that it “uphold its responsibility to monitor waiver implementation”. At the same time, it would have been better if these groups, along with other reform outfits — especially those aligned with centrist Democrats who initially cheered on the administration’s gambit — held the administration’s feet to the fire two years ago when Dropout Nation and a few others were chiding the entire effort in the first place. What these reformers should do now is call upon the Obama Administration to call off the waiver gambit, fully embrace the approach to accountability put in place under No Child, and begin negotiating with congressional leaders on a reauthorization of the law as it should have done a long time ago.
The problems of the Obama Administration’s No Child waivers were apparent even before U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan formally announced the effort two years ago. The plan to let states to focus on just the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) effectively allowed districts not under watch (including suburban districts whose failures in serving poor and minority kids was exposed by No Child) off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. The overall plan to eviscerate AYP also took away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need them to be in order for overhauls to gain traction, while eliminating data that researchers and policymakers need to see how districts are progressing in improving student achievement.
But the problems with the waivers became even more apparent last year after the administration granted waivers during the first two rounds of the gambit. Duncan and other U.S. Department of Education officials ignored concerns raised by the peer review panel charged by the administration with vetting the waiver proposals. The administration granted waivers to states such as New York, New Mexico, and Oklahoma failed to consult with American Indian tribes on waiver plans as required by the administration’s own rules for the waiver process, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and under treaties between tribes and states themselves. The administration also failed to fully address other concerns: For example, it granted Georgia a waiver in spite of concerns that it didn’t include graduation rate data for poor and minority kids into its proposed accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, which effectively meant that “a school could earn a high CCRPI with low graduation rates for some subgroups”.
Meanwhile other concerns about the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit kept creeping up. The administration effectively allowed many of the states granted waivers to game graduation rates, providing inaccurate information on the performance of districts and other school operators in helping kids stay on the path to lifelong success. Indiana, Louisiana, and South Dakota, for example, were allowed to 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 also allowed graduation rates to 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 — essentially allowing dropout factories, ostensibly, the focus of the waiver gambit, to slip under the radar.
There was the fact that the Obama Administration boldly, in fact, proudly, granted waivers to states which hadn’t fully put their proposed reforms in place. Connecticut, for example, was granted a waiver even though the teacher evaluation program it had told the administration it would put in place is only in pilot form, with only eight-to-ten districts participating in it. Meanwhile Ohio was granted a waiver even though it has not formally put a accountability system in place, a key condition set by the administration for being allowed to evade No Child’s AYP approach to holding school operators accountable. New York State was granted a waiver even though it has been widely known that the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State affiliate and Big Apple local were battling fiercely against implementation by New York City and other districts.
Then there was Virginia, which was granted a waiver in June 2012 by the Obama Administration in spite of its longstanding unwillingness to embrace systemic reform as well as address the low quality of teaching and curricula provided to poor and minority children. The administration’s decision led to its embarrassment two months later when Watchdog VA‘s revelation that it allowed the Old Dominion to set Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency 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. Thanks to outrage from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Virginia branch, which laudably pushed back against those low expectations, the administration had to force the state to revise its targets. But the administration approved efforts by other states, including Tennessee and Michigan, to define proficiency down for poor and minority children.
Certainly many of the Obama Administration’s goals for the waiver gambit — including spurring reforms that will help kids achieve success in higher education and in career — are laudable. But the administration did not need to eviscerate No Child in order to accomplish them. In fact, the administration could have accomplished nearly all of its goals by working within the framework set by No Child, as well as by working with congressional leaders, either on fully reauthorizing No Child or passing add-on legislation. But because the administration has decided to conduct its policymaking in a reckless manner drive more by the desire of Obama and Duncan to leave their mark on federal education policy, they failed to build thoughtfully on No Child’s solid, sensible, and comprehensive approach to accountability. The consequences — from allowing states to render poor and minority kids invisible altogether through such subterfuges as lumping all of subgroups into a so-called super subgroup category, to ignoring the failures of suburban districts to improve education for all children, to intolerable incoherence in federal education policy — were clear from the beginning.
Even worse, other consequences are also emerging from the gambit that are essentially weakening systemic reform on the ground. From the move by Texas to pass House Bill 5, which derailed three decades of successful reforms undertaken in the Lone Star State, to the decision last month by California Gov. Jerry Brown to ditch all but a few of its battery of tests (and ditch accountability altogether), the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit has effectively signaled to traditionalists and others that it is perfectly okay to return to the bad old days before No Child when futures of poor and minority children were allowed to be cast into the economic and social abyss. And because the Obama Administration has followed up on its waiver gambit with other senseless decisions — including Duncan’s move this past June to allow waiver states a one-year moratorium from fully implementing teacher evaluation systems they promised to put into place in order to allay opposition from teachers’ unions and others to the use of exams aligned with Common Core reading and math standards — the waiver gambit has also made it harder for reform-minded politicians to push ahead on transforming education for kids. This can be seen in New York State where Education Commissioner John King is battling both Common Core foes and the AFT’s Empire State affiliate over all aspects of implementing standards and teacher evaluations.
This all could have been avoided if reformers, especially centrist Democrats who initially championed the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit, pushed against either the effort overall or the worst aspects of it. This includes conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who have supported plans from House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander that propose to do exactly what the Obama waiver gambit has accomplished. Certainly a few reformers, notably those of a civil rights orientation, have battled strongly against the waiver gambit; this includes Alliance for Excellent Education, which has rallied organizations, along with congressional leaders such as Rep. George Miller (who helped craft No Child) to beat back against the administration’s efforts to allow states to game graduation rates. This is also true for those who helped put No Child into place such as Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as secretary of education. But other reformers have sat on the sidelines, cowardly silent about the problems of the waiver gambit, inexcusably failing to remember that education policymaking is about clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society to ensure that every child is provided high-quality education.
This lack of strong leadership within the movement is inexcusable and unacceptable. By not holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on the waivers, reformers have ceded plenty of moral and intellectual high ground, essentially promoting the very soft bigotry of low expectations that they declare they oppose. In standing by the administration instead of calling it out for shoddy policymaking, reformers have also given traditionalists ammunition in battling against other reforms they support. In the process, they have made it harder for themselves and for the new generation of reformers who are now emerging from Parent Power and grassroots communities. Their inaction has also set back three decades of strong reforms for children.
It may not yet be too late for reformers to push against the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit — and reverse the damage that it has wrought. But time is running out.