U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced that he will unilaterally override the No Child Left Behind law. States will unilaterally be issued waivers exempting them from some of the law’s regulations; in particular, states will be exempted from the requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, says the New York Times. Duncan announced the changes in a Friday night conference that he said could not be reported until midnight on Sunday.
Duncan said that he has decided to pursue the waivers because Congress has so far failed to rewrite the law, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. But states and local school districts have long clamored for relief from NCLB and the sanctions they face if they do not meet its requirements.
NCLB used standardized test scores in schools, particularly those serving minority students, as its central focus. While states could adopt local academic standards and set passing scores under NCLB, the requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 actually had the effect of lower standards: Districts made standards easier so more students could score as proficient. More than 40 states have adopted higher standards since 2010 and the 2014 deadline is “complicating their efforts,” said Duncan. As one example, the New York Times points out that
In Tennessee, for instance, 91 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in math under the state’s old standards, but under new, tougher standards adopted recently, the proportion plummeted to 34 percent.
Last year, about 38,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools did not meet their targets and Duncan predicts that 80,000 will this year. EdWeek puts the number even higher, at 82 percent. Under NCLB’s rating system, “eighty-nine percent of Florida’s public schools, for instance, missed federal testing targets, although 58 percent of Florida schools earned an A under the state’s own well-regarded grading system.”
School administration officials have also criticized the law for failing to take into account differences in schools low-income and urban school that are in “chronic failure” vs. those that are improving, and between “high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.”
Melody Barnes, director of President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, emphasized that, while all states would be able to apply for waivers regarding NCLB’s accountability, only those seen as instituting “ambitious school improvement initiatives” — such as their own testing and accountability programs — would be granted them. The waivers, she said, are “not a pass on accountability.”
Barnes also said that, with the new school year about to start (and on the verge of starting in some states), “we still believe there is no clear path toward a bipartisan bill to reform “No Child Left Behind.” In Politico, Senator Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate education committee and a Democrat from Iowa, also said that it was “understandable” that Duncan has chosen to pursue the waiver plan as — in a comment that resonates after the debacle over the debt-ceiling negotiations — “it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything.”
The plan, says Duncan, is meant to serve as a “bridge” or a “transition” to further action by Congress and not be a challenge to House Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Kline’s legislation. Kline, a Minnesota Republican, has challenged Duncan’s right to issue waivers in a June letter. His committees has completed three overhaul bills focusing on elimination of federal programs, financial flexibility for states, and charter schools. But the committee has yet to produce bills reforming the law’s provisions for school accountability and teacher effectiveness provisions.
In September, Duncan says a plan will be announced about how to apply for the waivers, says the New York Times:
For a waiver to be approved, they said, states would need to show that they were adopting higher standards under which high school students were “college- and career-ready” at graduation, were working to improve teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures, were overhauling the lowest-performing schools, and were adopting locally designed school accountability systems to replace No Child’s pass-fail system.
Those requirements match the criteria the administration used last year in picking winning states in its two-stage Race to the Top grant competition.
Critics say that Duncan’s plan is simply another round of Race to the Top. But school officials are likely to support it; some states, including Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, have already applied for waivers — and some schools (Idaho, South Dakota and Montana) have already informed the Education Department that they will ignore parts of the law.
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