Author: RiShawn Biddle

The Conversation at Dropout Nation: NCTQ’s Arthur McKee on Reforming Ed Schools

On this special Conversation with Editor RiShawn Biddle, Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality offers an opposing view on Dropout Nation‘s commentaries on the future of ed…

On this special Conversation with Editor RiShawn Biddle, Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality offers an opposing view on Dropout Nation‘s commentaries on the future of ed schools. While he defends the need for their existence, McKee also argues that their efforts in teacher training and education research are sorely in need of reform.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the Conversation podcast series and the overall Dropout Nation Podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

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School Reform is No Bloodless Exercise, Or Rick Hess Responds on “Achievement Gap Mania”

Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on…

Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on “achievement gap mania.” From where Hess sits, your editor somehow misinterpreted his position on what he considers the nation’s unhealthy effort to overhaul education for all children, even though I pulled quotes from his own pieces saying so. Hess can disagree with my ultimate summation of his thoughts all he wants, but it stands and that’s that. After all, he did write a piece dedicated to arguing that the idea that a focus on stemming the achievement gaps of poor and minority children (as well as young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds) is a bad public policy idea.

Funny thing is that Hess didn’t offer up much of a defense of his underlying argument: That the focus on stemming achievement gaps has sapped time, money and political resources from addressing other educational concerns (and causing the performance of even top-flight students to decline). Probably because that argument was based on a series of specious evidence that didn’t prove anything. After all, in the decade since the achievement gap became a national mania, policymakers have managed to focus their energies on anti-bullying legislation, childhood obesity (including federal rules requiring schools to start victory gardens as part of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act), and the expansion of school choice. It hasn’t consumed “the whole of our attention” as Hess declares.  Same is true for philanthropies, which have also poured dollars into teacher quality reform initiatives, character education efforts, and family engagement and Parent Power activities. While the latter has garnered the fewest resources that has less to do with the available pots of money than with the reality that donors are more comfortable conversing with Hess and other think tankers over goat cheese hors d’oeuvres than dealing with the messiness of working the grassroots. And given that all American students, including those at the top of their game, have been struggling against their peers internationally for at least three decades, would be off-base in blaming the focus on stemming achievement gaps for these issues.

Contrary to what Hess (and others such as the otherwise estimable Jay P. Greene and the generally one-note Robert Pondiscio) may think, the focus on stemming achievement gaps has not been exacerbated the nation’s education crisis. If anything, as folks such as No Child Left Behind Act mastermind Sandy Kress have pointed out (and Mike Petrilli has admitted), the focus on achievement gaps has helped push the very systemic reforms — from subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management, to the expansion of school choice — Hess and other reformers desire. It has also yielded some success especially in improving overall student achievement. Certainly, none of these reforms are silver bullets on their own. Nor does one set of instructional method for on. But these efforts, along with others such as blended learning, are creating opportunities for spurring the systemic reforms needed to help all children — from young men struggling with reading at every economic and racial category, to those with stronger learning backgrounds — succeed in school and life.

Hess attempts to blame the focus on stemming achievement gaps for the lack of strong development of instructional techniques that can work for both struggling and more-advanced students. It doesn’t work. What he calls a bitter fruit of “achievement gap mania” is really a problem emanating from the talent and sophistication problems endemic within American public education itself. As Hess himself noted when discussing the spates of cheating in Atlanta, and as Dropout Nation pointed out this month in its commentary on the use of school data, the low quality of teacher and principal training has resulted in the proliferation of school staffers who do plenty badly. And we end up with other players in education who misread the problems instead of realizing that you have teachers and principals on the ground not trained well enough to use any tool — from instructional methods to data — properly in helping students succeed. As Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli made that mistake with data, same is true for Hess when it comes to the focus on stemming achievement gaps.

Again, Hess has a thesis that isn’t worth defending. It deserves to be put into the trash with ability tracking and the Poverty Myth of Education Diane Ravitch and Ruby Payne peddle for profit and prominence. What is particularly amazing is that Hess then goes on to proclaim that the new voices articulating for reform are risking the success of the movement by transforming solutions into dogmatic and “stifling orthodoxies.” Again, he can’t offer any real strong examples from anyone of note (including yours truly; after all, I am as much willing to challenge reformers for faulty thinking as I do education traditionalists). Instead, he offers up a blanket statement about Steve Brill and his new book, Class Warfare, and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for “Superman”.

One wonders if Hess is reading and seeing what he wants to believe in both the case of Class Warfare and Superman. As Andy Rotherham points out in his review of the book, it is far more nuanced about the problems in education — including how to improve teacher quality — than dogmatic. If anything, Brill’s book hardly offers dogma, but solid reporting that offers a complex picture of both reformers and education traditionalists. Same with Superman, which acknowledged that charter schools weren’t the sole answer, and that teachers’ unions aren’t the only obstacles to systemic reform. And, contrary, to what Hess argues, few of the new voices coming into school reform are all dogmatic. A woman like Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, for example, is probably far more open to new solutions than many longtime reformers; the same is true for her counterparts.

Meanwhile Hess, like a number of Beltway reformers, is obtuse about the concept of filmmaking and writing for the public. For books that are meant to be read be the average person (you know, the folks who will never read the 100-page policy studies Hess writes for living, and I put together when I’m not writing for average people), a book has to offer this thing called a narrative, in which there is a struggle between opposing forces that disagree on critical matters; there also have to be these people called characters and protagonists, who are engaged in that struggle. Meanwhile filmmaking is a form of communication in which images are more-important than turns of phrase. This means scenes of unemployment lines in rural South Carolina, images of teachers working heroically in charter schools, and even a menacing sound bite from Randi Weingarten in front of a black background.

A cinematic version of AEI panel discussions, lovely as they are (and as much as I, a policy geek, enjoys them) will not grab any public attention. And, as I said last year about Hess’ wrongheaded criticism of Superman, school reformers have to realize that you will need more voices, more Brills and more Guggenheims (along with others in the creative fields) in order to rally strong support for reform from the public. Up to now, the movement has succeeded in spite of itself; save for folks such as Steve Barr of Green Dot and others working in communities, they have done a poor job of rallying both urban families (who have flocked to reform in spite of that deficit) as well as suburban communities whose schools are more mediocre than they realize. Instead of criticizing these voices for using their tools for advocacy as they are supposed to (because those forms demand it), reformers should embrace them, learn more about these formats, and use them for their own efforts.

Some may argue I have been too hard on Hess. And perhaps, I have. But he’s a grown up and he can take it the same way I do each day. While I certainly admire Hess’ work and his thoughts on reforming American public education, I also think that his views on both the achievement gap and new voices in education are off-target. More importantly, in criticizing Hess and other reformers, Dropout Nation is fulfilling its mission. This publication not only exists to push for a revolution in American public education that helps all children succeed in school and life, and to speak truth to educational traditionalists who hold influence and power. It is also to constantly remind reformers, especially Hess, that they must walk the talk, that they must stand straight and upright for the very children they want to help, and that they must be held as accountable for lapses in thinking as status quo defenders must be for, as school reform donor R. Boykin Curry, would say in his slight overstatement, getting proverbial blood on their hands.

This is not a bloodless exercise, and not a public policy game. Our kids get only one chance every day to get ready for the future – and we only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. This doesn’t mean being dogmatic, but being thoughtful radicals unashamedly, unapologetically pursuing systemic reform for both our kids who get the least and our youngsters blessed with abundance. This means challenging everyone, from Beltway reformers to grassroots activists, the same way voices of conscience from past movements — including the student groups that energized and questioned established groups in the civil rights and conservative movements — to live up to the best within themselves. And that means every reformer must spend time challenging each other as well as the other side.

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Voices of the Dropout Nation: Dr. Steve Perry Decries the Gutting of No Child

The response to President Barack Obama No Child waivers plan hasn’t been exactly to his liking or that of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Education traditionalists have largely derided…

The response to President Barack Obama No Child waivers plan hasn’t been exactly to his liking or that of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Education traditionalists have largely derided the plan as has many conservative, centrist Democrat and liberal school reformers. And for many reasons. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, in particular, has already declared that the plan is internally conflicted” because it pushes for common curricula standards while giving away the “common accountability” needed to hold states accountable. And as your editor declared on Friday, the waivers are a white flag for the kind of systemic reform needed to help all students, including poor and minority children, succeed in school and in life.

Capital Prep Magnet School principal and CNN commentator Dr. Steve Perry, whose new book, offers steps to helping parents take power in education, offers his own thoughts about the No Child waivers. He rightly calls out the president for his step back in improving schools that have perpetuated decades of educational neglect and malpractice.

This is sad. President Obama has the appropriate catch phrases “teaching to the test.., higher standards” and “accountability”. The problem? All this does is strip the teeth out of the tiger.

No Child Left Behind is a policy that says simply, every child should be “proficient” in the core subjects of math, reading and science by 2014. If the school has not educated all of its kids to proficient or is showing adequate yearly progress towards all, then after six years, the schools must use the hundreds of millions of dollars they receive to educate kids to proficiency to provide the students they have failed educational options, such as tutoring or the option to select a better public school within the same district.

The beauty of No Child for minority, poor, English Language Learner and other ‘subgroups’ is that the school was obligated to provide them the same education. Meaning, until No Child, suburban schools with poor, minority, special education, and English Language Learner kids could refer to themselves as great, because the majority of the kids — middle class and White — were doing find even though it was an open secret that hundreds of other kids in the school were being ‘left behind.’

George W. Bush, yes THAT George W. Bush said, essentially, ‘That’s some B.S. Since we, the federal government are paying hundreds of millions to those suburban districts specifically to educate poor and minority kids, the schools better educate them — or else we’re taking our money back, allow the kids to go to better schools’  (ostensibly taking their tuition with them to another school). Yes, that George W. Bush. This is why No Child was so widely supported by staunch liberals like Ted Kennedy and was passed w/ overwhelmingly bipartisan support.

No Child set standards measured by standardized tests that were created by the states’ own educators. Essentially the law says: “We need something to measure. You, states, ask your teachers to either identify or create your own test to measure if your students are learning from your teachers.” What happened next is why we are here. The kids failed the tests their teachers selected! Instead of teachers accepting responsibility, they blamed race, poverty, community, parents, the economy, test anxiety and the test they selected.

It comes as no surprise that the unions and many superintendents are and have been vehemently against No Child. That’s because it requires that all kids should learn and if they don’t, We The People are coming to get the tuition back that we paid for our kids to go to a school that educates all equally. You know, what the U.S. Supreme Court refers to as a basic human right.

Now President Obama has, like so many Democrats, folded like a wet piece of paper and buckled like a bad knee just in time for election season. What the hell is wrong with teaching to the test?  Have you ever read one of these test? They don’t limit teachers they guide them to teach skills that are proven to be essential to academic success.

In fact, if you ever met a kid who did well on these exams you wouldn’t think they were dumb, quite the opposite because the tests measure skills like adding whole and partial numbers, reading and comprehending both fiction and nonfiction text, editing and revising sentences, writing a basic five- paragraph essay (what would essentially be a cover letter), using evidence an logic to make a point as well as some basic science concepts. That’s the big mean old test. A basic skills test that measures the ability of 10th graders  to read write and compute on the ninth grade level. Yes, ninth grade, because ‘proficient’ means ‘approaching’. So when kids are below proficient or ‘basic’ they are testing at least two grade levels below.

I am very disappointed in President Obama. But I’m not surprised. His education policies to date have been propped up by a No Child knock off, Race to the Top. In this program states compete for federal money that, as we know, doesn’t exist. Therefore the brass ring, the impetus for making changes, federal money to pay they bloated local public school budgets, was gone before it arrived.

Does No Child need to be tweaked? Of course, its almost blind ambition doesn’t allow for the nuances of an effective school to be measured like, daily attendance rates. (Good schools have very high attendance, like well over 95 percent daily). Tweaking would look like adjusting the testing cycle. Right now, most schools suspend all instruction for at least a month to administer the battery of exams. With an already chopped up school year with what feel like breaks every three weeks, stopping instruction to take tests is flat out ridiculous.

So offer smaller versions of these tests every two-to-four weeks. This will allow instruction to continue and, more importantly, provide teachers with data they can use to inform instruction during the school years. Now, we don’t get the results until July. What in the hell are we gonna do with fourth grade scores when the kid is now in the fifth grade? Had we had the data in September, that kid could have been helped.

Sure, we can discuss the timeline.  The original timeline, however, 12 years, is more than reasonable. An entire generation to fix schools is too long, and now the President is going to extend it? Brilliant. Just freaking brilliant. Here’s a timeline tweak: Take as long as you want to fix your school. But the American people are only going to send our hundreds of millions of dollars to good schools. So holla when you feel you’re ready, in the meantime while you do your educations reforming, we’re going to make sure our kids go to good schools tomorrow.

Tweaking would look like establishing new standards based upon America’s best schools while keeping the heart of No Child intact. The President could identify schools that are in the to 10-percent-to-25 percent in a state, select observable and measurable characteristics of those schools and decree that all schools in that state must be at least on a reasonable trajectory to perform on the same level. US News & World Reports has both a list and strategy for identifying most of these characteristics.  If that doesn’t work, then the President can simply use the check list that he and Mrs. Obama used to select their daughters’ schools. If it’s goof enough for the Obama’s then that school is good enough for me.

The President’s new plan is not a tweaking this straight pandering. While it may, emphasis on may, improve the likelihood that he will be re-elected, it won’t do a damn thing to increase the number of successful schools in America. In fact, it’ll do quite the opposite because by removing the high standards of No Child and the stake therein will go away. And failed schools, including ‘good suburban school’, that fail to educate all kids as the Constitution has been interpreted to say, will survive and thrive – leaving behind millions of America’s most needy and, dare I say, deserving, children.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: Servant Leaders for School Reform

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I glean some lessons from a sermon by Dallas pastor Frederick D. Haynes III and discuss the need for servant leaders for overhauling American…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I glean some lessons from a sermon by Dallas pastor Frederick D. Haynes III and discuss the need for servant leaders for overhauling American public education. As important as education policy is to spurring systemic reform, it is even more important to embrace people such as Geoffrey Canada, Howard Fuller, and Parent Power activists who can serve our geniuses and lead them to brighter futures.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

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Two Thoughts on Education This Week: The Double-Speak of Dennis Van Roekel

A Little Consistency, Please, Mr. Van Roekel: Maybe the ghost of idiosyncratic-yet-militant teachers union legend Albert Shanker had taken a hold of him. Or perhaps, he is a little jealous…

A Little Consistency, Please, Mr. Van Roekel: Maybe the ghost of idiosyncratic-yet-militant teachers union legend Albert Shanker had taken a hold of him. Or perhaps, he is a little jealous of all the attention Randi Weingarten gets from her failed triangulation of the school reform movement. But National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel attempted to play the role of school reformer during an “education braintrust” session held yesterday at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative pow-wow.

Between harrumphs about how the NEA is pushing for its form of school reform lite (essentially, keeping the status quo quite ante), Van Roekel told the crowd that the “all 9000 delegates at our assembly voted to endorse president Obama for a second term because he is a friend of education.” The fact that the Obama administration has all but ignored both the NEA or the American Federation of Teachers, has long had an acrimonious relationship with the two unions because they oppose the administration’s school reform agenda, and does little other than throw taxpayer dollars to them in order to help congressional Democrats secure at least partial control of Congress, doesn’t come up. Nor does Van Roekel admit that these days that Democrats at the state level are calling the shots, essentially helping to weaken its influence over education policy.

But that’s nothing compared to his musings on teacher quality. Declaring that school reformers have “wasted the last 18 months debating tenure, Van Roekel then proclaimed that the real problem lies with the abysmal way America recruits and trains its teachers. From where he sits, the “system of recruitment, training and hiring is broken” and needs an overhaul. This means changing the “system on the front end”, by improving how aspiring teachers are developed and trained before they go into classrooms.

Van Roekel is right. The low quality of teacher recruiting and training is one of the reasons why academic instruction in our classrooms is in such sorry shape. There would be less of a need for firing laggard teachers if ed schools did a better job of recruiting those aspiring to get into the profession. But Van Roekel would have more credibility arguing this point if the NEA wasn’t such as strong supporter of the very ed schools that bring in low-quality talent into the profession in the first place.

After all, it is the NEA that has long had comfy relations with the nation’s ed schools, even to the point of subsidizing the operations of the very trade groups that defend them from the systemic overhaul reformers have long championed. In 2009-2010, the NEA ladled out $381,576 to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which oversees teacher training programs, according to its filing with the U.S. Department of Labor; that’s part of $1.9 million the union gave to the group over a five-year period. In 2008-2009, the union handed out $252,262 to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the main trade group for ed schools.

With such financial and political leverage, the NEA could have forced ed schools into embracing reforms of its recruiting and training; the union could have even helped the National Council on Teacher Quality force ed schools into cooperating in the rating of ed schools it is conducting with U.S. News and World Report. The union has been silent on both counts. More importantly, Van Roekel fails to admit that the traditional teacher compensation system it defends — including near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure — is as much of the problem with teacher quality as recruiting and training. After all, what highly-talented collegian, especially one in math and science, would want to work in a profession in which the full compensation package — including $2 million in defined-benefit pension payments — cannot be reaped until they spend a decade or longer in the profession (and be forced to work with laggard colleagues who are paid the same wage to boot)?. The work rules that the union defends also makes it difficult for districts to do the kind of innovative practices — including increased specialization at the elementary school level — that can make teaching a more-sophisticated and attractive profession in the knowledge-based economy.

Van Roekel is certainly right about the need to improve teacher recruiting and training. But his union should set a better example on that front by pushing for systemic reform.

More on Rick Hess’ Achievement Gap Thoughtlessness: Over the past two days, American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess attempted to defend his recent pieces declaring that focusing on the achievement gap has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. Your editor could spend days tearing up what Dave Eggers would call Hess’ heartbreaking works of staggering nonsense. But I’ll stick to a series of specious examples he has used to prove his point.

Hess has argued that the achievement gap has excluded focus on subjects that aren’t considered core because they aren’t tested. One particular data point, which he culls from the Center for Applied Linguistics that the share of elementary schools offering foreign language courses has been in decline. Funny enough, Hess’ argument is similar to those offered by the very education traditionalists with whom he has long foisted, who have argued for the past decade that the expansion of standardized testing has led to the narrowing of curricula. And as the traditionalists have been wrong on that point, Hess is off-base on this subject as well.

The fact that foreign languages are generally offered at the middle- and high-school level immediately makes Hess’ citation rather suspect; the decline was only from 31 percent of elementary schools to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008, which is not all that significant. At the high school level, foreign language courses remains constant, with 91 percent of all high schools offering those course. More importantly, Hess’ argument fails to consider evidence that offerings of music and art courses  — which should also be in decline — remain as much a part of elementary- and secondary-school offerings as social studies.

Meanwhile Hess also tries to use the recent PISA data — which shows that America’s students, especially its top-performers, are trailing the rest of the world academically — to prove his point. The problem? This is not a recent trend. American students have been trailing their peers in literacy, numeracy and science for the past four decades, long before the current focus on stemming the achievement gap. In fact, this woeful performance compared to the rest of the world is one of the reasons why school reformers began focusing on closing achievement gaps in the first place. The more minority students moving from failure to academic proficiency, the more high-performing students and future entrepreneurs and workers this nation will have in an increasingly global economy.

Again, Hess should stop the intellectual madness. And just move off this dead horse of a theory.


  • Adam Emerson at Redefine Ed takes Education Sector’s Richard Lee Colvin to task on vouchers. And rightfully so. I admire Colvin’s work (after all, I did write a study for him while he was at the Hechinger Institute). But Colvin gets some things wrong when it comes to his view on vouchers. In particular, he wrongly casts the voucher debate as merely one between free-marketeers and education traditionalists, failing to consider the wide array of liberal Democrat reformers, urban families and others who are fans of vouchers (as well as libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute that now think vouchers are not worth considering). I can go on and on. But I won’t. For now.
  • Next week, I will take apart Pedro Noguera’s claptrap on vouchers, which appears today at NBC’s Education Nation Web site. And yes, Noguera once again proves that as wonderfully passionate as he may be when it comes to improving education for black males, he sticks to the kind of thoughtless education traditionalist beliefs that have helped create the problem in the first place. Expect Pedro to not take any more kindly to my thoughts than he did the last time I paid him mind.
  • Voices of the Dropout Nation in Quotes: No Child Department: “No Child has allowed us to identify the problems. It’s not enough to have 100 percent of the data. You have to know what is happening by subgroups.” — Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott at yesterday’s Congressional Black Caucus pow-wow on education.
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Arne and Obama Gut School Accountability

  As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper…


As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written.

Under the Obama plan, states will be allowed to evade the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision with a vague set of “ambitious but achievable goals” and an equally amorphous requirement that states must put “college and career-ready” curriculum standards in place. Many surmise the latter means implementing Common Core standards in reading and math — something that 45 states have done so far. But Duncan has had to avoid making such a public statement means in order to avoid the full wrath of congressional Republicans and some reformers who essentially declare that doing so oversteps the Department of Education’s authority. As a result, a state can probably come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and easily get it past federal officials.

The rest of the proposed waiver standards, as being unveiled today by the administration, simply point to a full retreat on accountability. States will be able to allow all but 15 percent of the nation’s schools receiving Title 1 funds (including the 5,000 dropout factories and failure mills) to fully avoid accountability. Certainly, the administration wants states to focus on schools that either have “low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance” to be subjected to scrutiny. But there’s no way that the administration can mandate this without reducing the flexibility it argues that the waivers will give. So the merely poor-performing schools — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — will largely be left alone.

Essentially, Obama’s waiver plan amounts to the gutting of accountability. Like the plan offered up last week by Senate Republicans, the waivers don’t address the need to overhaul ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines. The waiver plan doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability (and thus, addressing the crisis of low educational attainment among young men of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds) on their own. But the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis.

The waivers don’t require states to set a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — that would give teachers and principals honest data that they can then use in keeping kids in school. Right now, only two states — California and Indiana — offer some sort of breakdown of chronic truancy data, and that’s not good enough. As for school choice and Parent Power? Not even a consideration.

The waivers, in short, aren’t worth anything when it comes to spurring systemic reform. The Obama plan is a step back, only slightly better than what congressional Republicans and their Senate counterparts are offering.

As Dropout Nation pointed out at the time of Duncan’s announcement in June, this move has weakened the administration’s hand without moving forward its reform agenda. With the waivers, Duncan will give the NEA, the AFT, suburban districts, and congressional Republicans what they really want — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. They won’t have to face a full public debate over what this step would mean for addressing the nation’s education crisis and the consequences of laying out their positions in full view. Duncan’s move also allows them to argue that the Obama administration has already ditched accountability while also declaring that the college- and career-ready standards it wants states to put into place in exchange for “flexibility” is unconstitutional because it steps on congressional authority. And for reform-minded governors who have wielded No Child effectively (along with Race to the Top) to push through their own reforms? They are on their own.

In the process, Obama won’t gain traction for the rest of his school reform agenda. Congressional Republicans will not only use this move to bolster their efforts to keep control of the House, they will also refuse to pass any other reform measure Obama offers up. The gutting of AYP is largely unpopular among centrist and liberal Democrat allies such as the Education Trust and congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, as well as by Republicans such as No Child mastermind Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education. It is reviled among conservative reformers such as Rick Hess and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — which, by the way, want to gut No Child themselves, but want to put their stamp on it. Supporters and foes of Common Core standards, who still believe that Obama will tacitly require states to embrace those standards in exchange for receiving waivers, are also dismayed by the waiver effort; particularly among conservative supporters of Common Core, they can no longer dodge accusations that the standards will lead to the creation of national curricula. (Whether or not that is a bad thing, given the low quality of curricula and standards throughout the nation, is a whole different matter entirely.)

This doesn’t bold well for Obama’s re-election prospects. After all, education reform was one of the few issues on which he had bipartisan support. While the president can point to some real successes, those achievements are muffled by a weakening of school reform efforts and ultimately, a set of decisions that have essentially declared to black and Latino constituencies concerned with reforming education that their children are not worthy of concern.

And let’s be clear: Despite what Obama and Duncan may declare, the decision to gut AYP essentially declares that federal education policy is no longer concerned with improving education for the very poor and minority children, be they black, white, Latino or Asian, who were poorly served by America’s traditional public schools before No Child’s passage a decade ago.

No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through AYP, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.

And now, there is no real focus at the federal level on improving education for all children, including our poorest children and those from minority communities. Certainly, reformers may be able to keep pressing in states and districts throughout the country. But there won’t be much in the way of federal support. Given that America is increasingly a majority-minority country, retreating on accountability isn’t the smartest decision for the nation’s future.

Let’s give Obama and Duncan credit for Race to the Top and some of their other reform efforts, which have spurred major systemic reform over the past couple of years. But on the matter of No Child, it is clear Obama and his education secretary have failed where his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his education point people) certainly and laudably succeeded.

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