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September 23, 2011 standard


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.

September 21, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of Rep. John Kline

When a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing declares that it will focus on “Ensuring the Education System is Accountable to Parents and Communities“, one would expect to see a list of witnesses including Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, Matt Prewett of the Texas Parents Union, and even the folks at Black Alliance for Educational Options. But today, the House subcommittee conducting this hearing didn’t include any of these advocates for making parents the lead decision-makers in education. Shameful. The committee and its chairman, John Kline, have missed an opportunity to make Parent Power efforts — including Parent Trigger laws already passed in three states — a critical element of federal education policy, and actually spur systemic reform.

Given that the hearing also focused on Kline’s obsession with gutting the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (and his equally wrongheaded opposition to Common Core standards), it isn’t surprising that the subcommittee holding the hearing invited fellow-travelers such as otherwise admirable University of Arkansas scholar Jay P. Greene. But somehow, for some reason, Kline and subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), failed to invite any of the leading lights of the growing Parent Power movement, and, in the process, made the hearing rather incomplete.

After all, as Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times points out in his column today, the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law has already begun making an impact, forcing school districts to pay attention to the demands of families — especially those from poor and minority communities — for high-quality teaching and curricula. In the process, these laws, along with school voucher plans, inter-district school choice efforts such as that being pursued in Michigan by Gov. Rick Snyder, and charter schools, give parents and caregivers real voice in shaping the educational destinies of the children they love. Given that Parent Power activists are also among the leading players among the new, emerging civil rights activists replacing the old-school NAACP crowd — along with the rhetoric of Kline and company about making education a truly local concern — Parent Trigger laws are key in expanding the ability of parents to improve schools in their own communities. And as revealed last month by Dropout Nation, the very existence of Parent Power groups have also proven to be a threat taken seriously by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association; any reform effort considered a real threat by education traditionalists is one to which a congressional committee should pay attention.

The good news is that Bill Jackson of did mention the efforts of the Connecticut Parents Union. But that isn’t enough. By ignoring these activists, Kline, Hunter and their fellow congressional Republicans on the committee have ignored an area in which federal education policy can help encourage and expand. No Child’s school choice provisions, which required school districts to allow students in failing schools to move to better-performing operations, may have not been implemented well by districts which often had no high-performing schools to send those kids to them (and didn’t want to actually comply with that aspect of the law in the first place). But the provision, along with the federal Race to the Top initiative, has served as a catalyst for pushing states into passing school choice laws and expanding the reach of charter schools. This time around, Kline could have used the hearing as the opportunity to force Senate counterpart Tom Harkin and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the table on crafting a new No Child that would require states and districts to implement Parent Trigger laws. This could take place either in the petition format embraced in California or the slightly less-powerful version found in Connecticut. But Parent Power should be a part of those conversations.

Once again, Kline and his gang have proven to be less than serious when it comes to federal education policy. Luckily for families, the Parent Power movement will grow long before congressional Republicans finally give it serious consideration.

September 16, 2011 standard


Five steps backwards to the bad old days of federal education policy. Tossing in the towel on the systemic reform of American public education at the time when kids and the economy need it most. What else can be said about the proposed revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by Tennessee U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and some of his fellow Republicans in the federal upper house?

The proposed elimination of the law’s Highly-Qualified Teacher provision isn’t exactly bad news. After all, all it has done is allowed states to simply grandfather in Baby Boomer teachers and others who may not necessarily be fit for classrooms instead of actually addressing teacher quality issues. But the Alexander plan — also known as Put Head in Sand and Ignore Reality — doesn’t take the same approach to pushing for teacher quality reforms — including requiring the use of student data in teacher evaluations — that has been embraced in the first two rounds of the Race to the Top initiative. At the very least, states should have to earn their federal subsidies.

As for the rest of the package? It’s hardly the “rare combination of thoughtfulness and humility” that Fordham’s Mike Petrilli dares to proclaim it to be. As with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s No Child waiver effort, the Alexander plans proposes to simply do away with the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have exposed the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia. Essentially, Alexander is proposing a set of mealy-mouth college- and career-ready standards that simply avoid holding states accountable for the quality of education provided in all but a few of its traditional public schools. Poor and minority children in suburbia — and even white kids in those schools — will simply have to struggle in cultures of mediocrity that, as Dr. Steve Perry noted in this month’s Conversation podcast, are often just marginally better than urban dropout factories.

Meanwhile the Alexander plan fails to deal with the reality that accountability needs to be expanded, not scaled back. The need to force the overhaul of ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, is still critical to the reform of American public education. Yet the Alexander plan is silent on that issue. Nor do Alexander’s proposals 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. And setting a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — 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. And school choice and Parent Power? Save for supporting the expansion of charter schools, not a thing.

What is particularly amazing is that the Alexander plan simply returns things back to the days when the federal government ladled out dollars with almost no accountability in return. It doesn’t embrace the best elements of Race to the Top — including its emphasis on forcing states to compete for federal money and show results. This is especially shameful because maintaining the program-based funding nature of Title I will do little to spur reform. If anything, it will eventually lead to a renewed form of compliance-based approach to how the feds oversee those funds that everyone — including Republicans and conservative reformers — decry. This is because under the Alexander plan, many states will simply go back to spending federal money without any consideration of results, which will lead to an eventual backlash.

There are those who will argue that the efforts by reform-minded states will continue without strong federal education policy. But they fail to remember that No Child is one of the main reasons why these reforms have accelerated in the first place. For reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle, No Child has proven to be the tool they need to beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. The law, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans.

All in all, the Alexander plan, like Duncan’s waivers and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s own efforts, simply does the bidding of education traditionalists (who don’t want any form of accountability) and fails to serve children. And any reformer who can defend this mishmash should look in the mirror and ask where do they really stand when it comes to our poor and minority kids.

But the proposal isn’t exactly surprising. As with the current GOP aspirants for the White House, the Alexander plan is shaped by the rebellion against the excesses of George W. Bush’s presidency and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats’ favorite Republican. Movement conservatives may be generally supportive of expanding vouchers and charter schools, two of the most-prominent elements of Bush’s education policy. For Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who ushered in the development of Value-Added Assessment of standardized test score data during his tenure as Tennessee’s governor, he must also keep in mind that he is up for re-election in 2014. He doesn’t want movement conservatives to offer up any challenge that will upset his goal of continually holding some form of political office.

No matter how one looks at it, the Alexander proposals aren’t worth the paper they are printed upon. The only good news is that Republicans are in the minority — and thus the plan has almost no chance of seeing the light of day this year. Unfortunately, Duncan’s waiver effort is still under way and some centrist Democrat reformers (notably Democrats for Education Reform, which rightly trashed Alexander’s plan) are moving away from outright opposition to trying to make it more-palatable for children’s consumption. Like conservative reformers who back the Alexander plan, they too should just stop and get back to work on pushing for an expanded federal education policy that pushes states further on embracing systemic reform.

September 8, 2011 standard


Let’s say this much about President Barack Obama’s latest stimulus plan: At least the plan to cut payroll taxes in half for small businesses may be worth supporting. The rest? Not so much. Considering that the more than $1 trillion in stimulus subsidies offered up by the president and his predecessor, George W. Bush, has not done much to address the nation’s immediate- and long-term economic problems. And the $105 billion spent on bailing out states and school districts have done more to keep many of them from dealing realistically with decades of feckless spending  — including $1.4 trillion in long-term pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare benefits — that have exacerbated the nation’s education crisis.

This latest stimulus will do even less. The $25 billion being proposed for rebuilding schools would increase spending on construction by 40 percent, which makes no sense given that the nation spends $63 billion a year on school construction and maintenance. This money is often spent badly, with as much going into expanding football fields as into classrooms. Essentially, the proposal tosses money into buildings when the nation’s education crisis has almost nothing to do with edifices.

Meanwhile the $30 billion being proposed to help school districts avoid layoffs is just another repeat of last year’s Edujobs bill, which tossed $10 billion in subsidies to supposedly save teacher jobs that, as it turned out, weren’t actually reduced. Just $2.5 billion of Edujobs money has been spent. Twenty states and the District of Columbia, for example, spent less than 5 percent of their Edujobs allotment, according to Education Week‘s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data; only four states — California, Georgia, Kansas, and South Carolina — spent 80 percent or more of the dollars they were given.

But didn’t Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have good reason to push for Edujobs? Not really. Why? Because the layoffs that were expected to come down the pipe equaled out to just a mere 1.6 percent of the 6.2 million people employed by American public education. While no one likes layoffs, that number was a pittance compared to the millions laid off in the private sector. And in the end, the layoffs didn’t materialize at all.  But this isn’t surprising. In most states, school districts are required to inform teachers chosen for reductions in force (along with their National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) about layoffs. This results in headline-grabbing stories about teachers losing jobs. But in most cases, districts — mindful of their servile relationships with NEA and AFT locals, who pull out all the stops politically and otherwise — rescind the layoffs, usually choosing to lay off school custodians and other staff, deciding to not fill open positions, or cutting expenditures in other areas. So the layoffs often don’t materialize.

Given that the U.S. Department of Education projected that some 13,000 teachers were added to payrolls in the 2009-2010 school year, according to its own annual book on school statistics, and another 24,000 should be added this past year, it is unlikely that mass teacher layoffs will happen this year. Are layoffs likely to happen in the coming years? Possibly. But given that states are facing $137 billion in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years, layoffs may be necessary, especially given that there are also far too many teachers in classrooms who are failing our children through their educational neglect and malpractice. This process would be easier if not for the quality-blind reverse seniority layoff rules that require teachers to reduce teaching staffs without regard to performance in improving student achievement. But governors and legislatures need to face down NEA and AFT affiliates and toss those rules into the ashbin of history. Which is what the Obama administration supports. But this stimulus, as with previous efforts, will only delay those days of reckoning.

But, as I noted last year with Obama’s and Duncan’s push for the Edujobs bill, this latest stimulus has almost nothing to do with layoffs or with school reform. Anticipating a tough re-election, both for himself and for his fellow Democrats in Congress, Obama is looking to make sure that the NEA and AFT (with which his administration has long clashed) mobilize their members for the 2012 campaign. Given the results from last year’s bailout — the loss of full control of Congress and the following clashes with Congressional Republicans that have helped weaken the administration’s public standing — the two unions will be of little real help. In fact, as the NEA has shown in June with its vote to endorse Obama’s re-election, the Democrats clearly call the shots.

This move is really just a waste of both taxpayer’s money and time that Obama could use to rally support for the education reform efforts that have been mostly-embraced on a bipartisan level. He would be better off tossing out the education portion of this stimulus and getting back to pushing for systemic reform.

June 17, 2011 standard

Generally, your Dropout Nation editor pays no attention to either Daily Kos or RedState — and not just because they have nothing worth considering when it comes to the reform of American public education. Whether the issue is education or anything else, neither side represents the best thinking of their respective political ideologies. What they do instead is serve as the Marats and Robespierres for the ideological Left and Right: Overly dedicated to dogma; thoughtlessly adherent to orthodoxy; and inflexible in thought. They would sooner support intellectual and political lightweights unworthy to lead such as Howard Dean and Sarah Palin than anyone who veers slightly off their visions of the true and shining path. At least they don’t own real guillotines.

So it wasn’t surprising when RedState’s Erick Erickson — who has never missed a chance to slag a fellow conservative for being insufficiently adherent– accused Checker Finn and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of being among heretics. Why? Because Finn took aim and fired straight at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s opposition to enacting Common Core standards and improving the Lone Star State’s decent-but-not-great academic curriculum standards (which are highly-rated by Fordham in English, but are lackluster in math). Declaring that Fordham — especially Finn — are faux conservatives, Erickson then declares that “one-size-fits-all” standards would not work better than the state-centered school reform approach Perry has overseen during his tenure.

Now dear readers, you already know that Dropout Nation hasn’t exactly given Fordham’s leading lights a free pass for their sometimes curious approach to reform. It is particularly interesting that Fordham touts the Kissingeresque mishmash they call Reform Realism — which essentially calls for the gutting of accountability and less-expansive federal education policy — even as they tout the creation of a national set of curriculum standards through its embrace of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (which, given the Obama administration’s efforts on behalf of it, represents a soft form of expanding federal education policy). Fordham’s research czar, Mike Petrilli, again tried to pull off this rhetorical trick this past Wednesday during one of the institute’s latest pow-wows. And from where I sit, it’s still not convincing.

But foolish consistency, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared, is the hobgoblin of small minds. And Finn, Petrilli and their gang are not small minds. The essential argument that they can make for what their seemingly contradictory positions — that federal accountability has not worked adequately enough to justify its continuation in current form (because of the regulatory burdens on states, along with their gamesmanship of the law itself), while the acceptance of Common Core by those states is voluntary and could result in more-substantial reform — actually can stand some scrutiny. A substantially flawed argument for sure; the argument that accountability is a failure falls on its face because it has actually worked in exposing the failures of American public education and provided the evidence needed to push for such reforms such as the expansion of charter schools. But it is an argument that a principled conservative — especially those advocating for school reform — can make and still, well, be sufficiently conservative.

Contrary to what Erickson may think, a conservative can argue for limited government overall and still make a strong case for a more-expansive federal role in education. Given the importance of education in sustaining the nation’s economic growth and social fabric, the depths of the nation’s education crisis, and the fact that the federal government spends $55 billion a year (as of 2009) on subsidizing public school systems, a more-comprehensive federal role that advances reform makes sense. (One can argue legitimately that the feds shouldn’t be funding education in the first place; but that discussion has been had and settled decades ago.)

If you think of education in the same manner as infrastructure and public works, it is not only sensible for the feds to push for more-rigorous curricula and better instruction, it is imperative. In fact, it was the great conservative himself, Ronald Reagan, who agreed with this thinking and helped advance the school reform movement three decades ago with the publication of A Nation at Risk; by 1986, some 250 state and local panels had been formed to spur overhaul of American public education. Finn, of course, could argue this better than I, especially since he was a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Department of Education.

Erickson’s other contention — that Perry and his fellow officials in Texas are actually capable of spurring reform on their own and can come up with more-rigorous curriculum standards than those proposed in Common Core standards — would stand up to scrutiny if not for the facts in evidence. If Erickson took a closer look at Perry’s record on education reform, he would have offered a more-thoughtful response than the claptrap he cranked out.

The success Texas has had in improving its education systems has less to do with Perry than with the work done in the previous two decades by his predecessors, Ann Richards and future president George W. Bush. They launched the series of school accountability measures on which federal education policy — most-notably the No Child Left Behind Act — is now based. Since Perry entered the governor’s office a decade ago, that progress has slowed significantly compared to its peer southern states.

While the percentage of fourth-graders overall reading Below Basic proficiency (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) has declined from 41 percent to 35 percent between 1998 and 2009, it doesn’t compare to the 20-point decline in functional illiteracy achieved by Florida, a more-aggressive school reform state, in that same period, or even the 12-point decline in Virginia (whose governors, like Perry in Texas, stood pat for most of that period).

Dig even deeper into the data and Perry’s school reform record (and anti-Common Core positioning) looks even less impressive. Seventy-three percent of Texas’ black male fourth-graders read Below Basic in 2009, a mere 7-point decline from 1998; it is a slower rate of improvement in literacy than Florida’s 28 percent decline (from 81 percent to 53 percent) for the same population of students, and the 19 percent decline in functional illiteracy in Virginia. The 15-percent decline in functional illiteracy among Texas’ Latino male fourth-graders is also lower than the 31-point decline for the same population in Florida.

Perry’s campaign-inspired protestations against federal intervention (and Erickson’s defense of that caterwauling) would make sense if Texas wasn’t taking federal education dollars. In fact, federal dollars account for 10 percent of the Lone Star State’s spending on education, slightly more than the 9 percent national average. When Perry declares publicly that he wants Texas to hand back those dollars, then I’ll buy what he’s selling. Otherwise, it just comes off as more mouthing off for spare votes.

Of course, some centrist Democrats — notably Andy Rotherham — are laughing about this latest round of ideological cleansing. But they should be careful: This week’s Netroots Nation conference is full of so-called progressive Democrats who are more concerned with preserving the privileges of teachers unions (and buy into the ranting of Diane Ravitch) than with improving the educational and economic destinies of America’s poorest children. To the Daily Kos crowd, centrist and liberal Democrat reformers — especially U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama — are insufficiently left-of-center. Watch your backs.

June 15, 2011 standard

A few months ago, when Arne Duncan was asked by Dropout Nation whether the Obama administration would allow states to waive out of meeting the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Secretary of Education declared that he had other things in mind. Namely finally reauthorizing the law. Declared Duncan back then: “Our focus is on getting it reauthorized… We are doing our job in passing that bill.”

But in announcing this week that the U.S. Department of Education would indeed proceed with such waivers, Duncan is engaging in a particular gambit: That his move will force Congress — including the Republicans who control the House of Representatives — to get to business and draft a new version of No Child that suits the Obama administration’s school reform goals. What Duncan has probably done instead is giving congressional Republicans and defenders of the status quo such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers exactly what they want: Eliminating accountability without so much as risking a public battle that will force both to actually admit where they really stand when it comes to the poorest and minority children.

The official pretext for this move lies with No Child’s aspirational provision that schools will ensure that all kids will be proficient in reading, math and science by2014 — and that so many schools (including suburban districts who seem, on their face, to be performing well) will be revealed as academically failing. Arguing that the penalties for not meeting that provision are too stringent, Duncan is looking to relax accountability altogether by essentially gutting No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions. This would be a step towards his long-term goal of limiting accountability to the five percent of the nation’s schools (about 5,000 dropout factories and failure mills) that are abject failures. The merely poor-performing schools — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — would be listed, but largely be left alone.

The ideas behind Duncan’s argument are specious. From the underlying math behind the prediction that 80 percent of schools will labeled academically failing, to the reality that there are numerous holes in the 2014 provision, to the fact that gamesmanship by the states (who slowly implemented the accountability measures, then ratcheting up the underlying standards) is the cause of these supposed issues, there is almost no justification for the move. But for Duncan and Obama, this was never about 2014. They want to place their permanent stamp on federal education policy — including fully transforming Title 1 spending from formula-centric spending to the kind of competitive grant competitions featured in the Race to the Top initiative — and are willing to use whatever means or excuse to get their way. By moving to grant waivers, Duncan and Obama hope to nudge all the congressional players towards action.

But congressional Republicans, including House Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline (who does want to gut accountability), are quite happy to sit pat at the moment. For one, they aren’t exactly interested in giving Obama a legislative victory that he can use in his re-election campaign next year. Another reason lies with the conflicts within the GOP over the role of the feds in education policy. Republican governors have been happy to use No Child and Race to the Top to spur reform initiatives that would otherwise gain little traction in legislatures over which NEA and AFT affiliates have held sway. Then there are folks such as former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Sandy Kress (who crafted No Child) who also oppose any move to weaken accountability. And given that most of the freshmen on the House Education and the Workforce Committee are concerned with abolishing ObamaCare, there was (and still is) little appetite for action.

The NEA, the AFT and their allies among defenders of traditional public education do want action on reauthorizing No Child; they want the entire law gutted altogether and revert back to the old system of federal dollars flowing to states and school districts without being held accountable for improving student achievement. But they also face a problem: The Obama administration’s reauthorization plan would still include new efforts to enact the teacher quality reforms the unions oppose so heatedly. And the administration has something of an ally on that front in Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), as well as possible supporters for such efforts from both Republicans and Democrats in the House. Essentially, status quo defenders wouldn’t gain much of a substantial victory.

But in announcing the plan to issue waivers from No Child’s accountability rules, Duncan has essentially weakened the administration’s hand without moving forward its reform agenda. Not that the NEA and AFT are fond of the move (after all, they want action). But it still works out in their favor. Why? 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; all that has to be done is to actually place it in statute. Best of all for education traditionalists and congressional Republicans, the administration won’t gain traction on the rest of its school reform agenda. Why allow for another Race to the Top? It isn’t as if Duncan and Obama have a position of strength from which to negotiate.

Of course, this could work out differently if Duncan and his Department of Education staff craft rules that essentially keep accountability in place in fact (even if AYP is tossed into the trash). The problem is that it’s hard for the administration to do so without encountering the wrath of both congressional Republicans and status quo defenders. Nor would the alternative being offered by the administration (already contained in its blueprint for reauthorizing No Child) be satisfying to many of the administration’s reform allies. One possibility — requiring state education departments to hold accountable districts that fail in educating poor and minority kids for three years or more — won’t work. Why?  Those agencies barely do a good job of holding districts accountable as is. No Child already gives states a set of prescriptive measures to pursue — including turnarounds and shutting down schools — to fix perpetual academic failure. But currently many states rarely force districts to undertake such drastic measures.

At this moment, the Obama administration has given up high ground on the only issue (outside of fighting terrorism) on which the president enjoys bipartisan support. For nothing. Not smart, Arne, not smart at all.