No Child Left Behind: Not Dead Yet

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan lay out rules for waivers of the No Child Left Behind law. (AP)

It's been nearly one year since President Obama first announced the administration's plan to offer states waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law, because a reauthorization of the 10-year-old law is stalled in Congress.

Since then, two-thirds of all states and Washington, DC have won exemption from some aspects of the education law, most notably its escalating federal proficiency targets for students in math and reading. In exchange, states have promised to beef up standards on their own, develop state accountability systems and incorporate student performance into teacher and principal evaluations.

Just last week, Nevada became the 33rd state granted a waiver, winning federal acceptance of a plan that creates a new statewide accountability system, called the Nevada School Performance Framework, which looks at student performance, academic growth and graduation rates, among other factors, to determine the effectiveness of schools. “Nevada joins the growing number of states who can't wait any longer for education reform,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

With the majority of states no longer abiding by the ten-year old federal law, some experts have concluded that it has effectively been overturned. But some of the remaining 17 states are finding that the feds can be pretty stubborn when it comes to allowing wholesale changes in the law's provisions.

Testing the Boundaries

Vermont is a good example. When officials there first heard about the waivers last summer, they saw an opportunity to rethink K-12 education in their state.

They wanted to move away from what they saw as the “shaming tactics” of the federal law, which labeled schools as failures if they didn't make adequate yearly progress toward the law's gradually increasing performance targets. And they wanted to de-emphasize standardized tests by only giving them every other year.

“This was really stepping out of the box,” says John Fischer, Vermont's Deputy Commissioner of Transformation and Innovation.

Vermont officials spent months developing their application last fall and winter. But soon after submitting a draft to the Education Department in February they learned they'd have to make a significant change: The Education Department would not let them give up on mandatory annual testing. “That was further than the flexibility they were willing to go,” says Fischer, who oversaw the state's application.

Vermont scrambled to revise its plan, but when the Department raised further concerns about the plan's academic standards, means of holding schools accountable and plans for turning around struggling schools, the state ultimately decided in May to scrap its application. “When we got down to it,” Fischer says, “there weren't a lot of benefits.”

The Cost of Change

In California, state leaders initially questioned the benefits of pursuing a waiver. A state report presented in November estimated that implementing the waiver plan would cost the state as much as $2 billion.

Many of the early states awarded waivers were among the winners of federal Race to the Top awards, coming out ahead in a grant competition that set goals similar to some of the principles set out in the waiver application.

Speaking recently at an event in Washington, New York State Education Commissioner John King acknowledged that winning Race to the Top was essential in providing political leverage when it came to getting a waiver.

“I worry for my colleagues who don't have the Race to the Top resources,” he says. “There's an ongoing challenge around maintaining momentum around any reform effort.”

In June, California, which faces a $16 billion deficit, submitted a waiver application on its own terms. It doesn't include changes to the state's principal and teacher evaluation systems and instead focuses on undoing some of the punitive requirements of No Child Left Behind and returning to California's own Academic Performance Index as the sole measure of how schools are performing.

The proposal has the backing of the state's powerful Teachers Association, but it's been slammed by some education groups.

Arun Ramanathan, executive director of The Education Trust-West, which advocates for more accountability in education, reviewed waiver proposals for the Education Department. He says that California's application paled in comparison to what other states submitted.

“California didn't apply,” Ramanathan says. “California submitted a political statement.”

Approving the proposal – which the Education Department is still reviewing – would set a bad precedent, says Jim Kohlmoos, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “I think the Department has to draw a line at some point, where it can't go,” he says.

If denied, California would be only the second state turned away by the Education Department. In June, Iowa's application was denied because of the state's teacher evaluation system. Officials there say they hope to reapply if the state legislature approves a new evaluation system.

What the Waivers Mean

Writing last month in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson concluded that the waiver plans will undo some of the progress made by the federal law and will lower academic standards. “These waivers provide money to states with fewer strings attached,” he writes, “an approach that failed for 40 years.”

Margaret Spellings, former Education Secretary under George W. Bush and an architect of the No Child Left Behind law, worries that having more than 30 different state accountability systems will be unwieldy for the department to monitor and make it more difficult for the public to track the performance of schools.

“It's going to mean more opaque systems,” she says. “The public is going to be ill-served by this.”

Current Secretary Duncan disagrees. On a call with reporters after Nevada's proposal was approved last week, Duncan emphasized that the state plans will better track the performance of more students.

“Collectively, these states are capturing more than 1 million additional students,” he said. “These are students that were literally invisible under No Child Left Behind.”

New York's John King thinks changes brought about through Race to the Top and New York's waiver plan, particularly surrounding principal and teacher evaluation, will improve education in the state.

“Our bet,” he says, “is that if you point people toward the right set of standards and you hold people individually accountable … that that's going to get us to the target.”

Duncan and other education leaders stress that they hope the waivers are only a temporary fix and that their popularity is an indication of how urgently Congress should work to revamp the law.

NASBE's Kohlmoos thinks it could actually have the opposite effect.

“With these waivers in place it takes some of the pressure off,” he says. “It's ironic.”

That troubles Vermont's Fischer, whose state is left waiting for a full federal reauthorization of the law as the only current path to change. “That would be the worst thing at this point that could happen,” he says.

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