If NY Gets NCLB Waiver, What Changes?

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Kirstin PryorSince No Child Left Behind took effect in 2001, tens of thousands of our country’s schools have been tagged “persistently low performing” and “in need of improvement.” Here in NYS, those names are poised to change to the less punitive “priority” and “focus” schools, if the waiver applied for last month is approved by the US Department of Education. Do the names matter?

The cynical point of view is that some of the fundamental critiques of NCLB—that it points a finger instead of lending a hand, and that it sets an impossible target of 100% student proficiency by 2014—were not taken seriously until they began adversely affecting high-performing schools in more affluent districts. But there is a bit more going on behind this waiver story—and it raises difficult questions about the role of the feds in education.

The Cast: NCLB, ESEA, Congress and Arne Duncan’s Waivers

Responsible for inserting “accountability” into our educational lexicon, the best thing that NCLB (the 2001 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA) did was to highlight and make schools responsible for individual student achievement, not just aggregate performance. It required annual testing of all students in grades 3-8 with public reporting of student performance, calculation of “achievement gaps” between different subgroups of students plus labels for schools. It also mandated tutoring and the option to transfer for students in schools designated as failing; these services were provided free to families.

Passions run high on NCLB, but most agree that the law hasn’t worked well: the problematic practice of letting states set their own bar for “proficient”; the 100% target; the over-reliance on test scores that don’t show student growth from year to year; the confusing and less-than-transparent system of “safe harbor targets” and adequate yearly progress; questions about the usefulness of labeling schools as failing if they don’t show growth with a very small number of students.

Few expected NCLB to be the reigning education law for a decade; most expected modifications, and it was up for reauthorization in 2007. It’s been debated in Congress since, with little action. Enter the waivers—in fall 2011, President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared their intention to allow states to apply for waivers. If states would meet certain conditions that the USDE holds dear (such as common standards, revamping teacher evaluation) they could earn flexibility. Eleven earned waivers in the first round; 26 more applied last month.

The waivers allow states to take back/develop their own accountability systems, and to forget about the 2014 100% target. The mandate to provide tutoring and transfers to students in failing schools is also gone. In NYS, Commissioner John King says the basic point is to replace the snapshot-style focus on school performance with a system that better targets schools for monitoring, supporting and rewarding student growth.

Thus, NYS plans a system that designates:

1. The bottom 5% of schools across the state as “Priority” and require them to adopt whole-school reform models.

2. At least 10% of districts and 10% of charter schools as “Focus.” This designation would be determined by the performance of student subgroups, and would require interventions targeted at these student populations. (The state identifies districts; districts designate schools.)

3. Top performers as “Reward” schools. Serving as models of success, these will be eligible for extra funds and perhaps more flexibility from State Ed.

Appropriate role of the federal government?

The waivers are taking some heat in Congress, which still hasn’t reauthorized ESEA. Why all the tension? Well, yes, because it’s about education, which is highly political. But also because we are all over the map about what role feds should play in education. Neither local/state control nor the more prescriptive top-down approach has the best track record. So, what’s a country to think?

Groups around the nation have been wrestling with this; some ideas worth noting:

  • Embracing the “tight-loose” ideal. This means the federal government would tightly define the end goals—the standards, the assessments, performance level—and then get out of the way as states determine how to meet them. Right now, each state sets their own “cut score” for student proficiency on their own statewide test. Human nature being what it is, the wisdom of letting folks set the bar that they’ll be punished for not meeting is suspect. Because 44 states have already voluntarily adopted a common set of college/career ready standards (the Common Core) and there are two consortiums working to develop companion assessments, this has potential, but would require significant overhaul on funding mechanisms and regulations.
  • Recognizing that the ability to improve student achievement lies in schools, not in district offices and not in government. This idea would restructure how federal funds are distributed in ways that empower schools. It proposes giving schools their Title 1 dollars and allowing them to contract with some type of “school support organization” that may or may not be their district central office. This proposal holds that empowering school leadership with the ability to choose and invest in the programs and services that best fit the school is the most direct way to school improvement.
  • Limiting the fed’s role to four key functions: gathering and disseminating information; enforcing civil rights; funding high-need students; and fostering competition among providers. (These are the recommendations of the Koret Task Force, Hoover Institute at Stanford.)

For now, reauthorization is stuck in Congress, and it’s making for some odd bedfellows. The most recent version includes testing and a streamlined accountability system focusing on the bottom 5% of schools, but does not include a prescriptive menu of school turnaround options, or requirements to overhaul teacher evaluation, both signature features of the administration’s blueprint. This places conservatives who support local control in alignment with teachers unions and many parent advocates, and Democrats at odds with their traditional base. Don’t expect to see this resolved in an election year!

As for the first question…yes, the names really might matter if they allow NYS to work with schools in different ways, and if they can recalibrate the tenor of school improvement discussions. However, the onus is on all of us—feds on down—to make sure that the new nomenclature acts as a more effective tool, rather than sweeping achievement gaps under the rug.

NCLB was important in spotlighting the unacceptably low achievement of our neediest kids, but most recognize it didn’t get the federal role quite right. The trick is figuring out the right role, without losing that focus.