Analysts see No Child Left Behind waivers as sensible move, but some cynicism remains

Posted on: September 27th, 2011 by Mikhail Zinshteyn No Comments

With last week’s announcement that the Obama administration is offering states the opportunity to opt out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements in exchange for more vigorous school accountability and teacher assessment standards, analysts around the nation are trying to make sense of the waiver option.

At the heart of the problem with NCLB is its rigidity: The law does not take into account school progress in improving the academic performances of students. Instead, the nine-year-old legislation judges a school, and a state, for its ability hit annual benchmarks called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

“I don’t think when we started this, it was about catch n’ kill,” begins Bill Bosher, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who served as superintendent of public instruction for the state from 1994 to 1997. “The intent was to have feedback on the performance of young people against a set of knowledge and skills.”

And though the original purpose of the law was to compel states to find innovative ways to have children learn more, the results have been less than sweeping.  The U.S. Department of Education released this National Center for Education Statistics report (PDF) that calculates from 2005-2009, there were 39 instances of states upping or maintaining the intensity of state standardized exams, and 40 in which the rigor of those tests decreased. That’s not the race to the bottom Dept. of Education Secretary Arne Duncan portrayed NCLB to be, but the record hardly lends support to the idea the law was effective in having all states expect more from their students by issuing harder exams. Observing alterations that only occurred in 2007-09, 28 were deemed improvements and five appeared to have had a watering-down effect.

That ratio looks better, but still, for an administration that went on the offensive calling out educators who don’t meet expectations, it’s no surprise a revamping of the law has become President Obama’s priority. After all, the law states that by 2014, nearly all schools will have total proficiency; as of 2010, only 62 percent of schools have met their states’ benchmarks.

And then there’s the separate matter of what state tests even reveal. “I think the idea is that the standards aren’t increasing fast enough,” says Jennifer Cohen of the New American Foundation. “It is one thing to have a set of standards made in a vacuum -– they may be getting harder but there is nothing to suggest that they are at all attached to what students need to know to succeed in college and career.”

Some education policy writers even wonder whether NCLB is receiving unfair blame for causing disruptions to schools and staff. Alexander Russo, a former Senate staffer and author on education, recently wrote, “[t]he reality is that firings, removals, and shutdowns are neither common, or widespread…and to the extent that they are happening, it’s the Obama administration’s own SIG school turnaround program that’s the cause, not NCLB.”

SIG, or school improvement grants, are awards given to local education authorities to intervene at schools languishing in the bottom rung of performance measures.

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at Education Sector, says the numbers tell a different story to Russo’s. In the first round of grants issued through the SIG program in 2010, 843 schools received (PDF) up to $6 million over three years to support school improvement efforts. Schools could choose from one of four models. One of these models was to close the school, but only 17 of the 843 schools chose that option. A second option was to restart the school under charter management. However, Hyslop says this option was also an unpopular choice -– just four percent (34) of SIG schools were reopened as a charter school. So only 50 schools were closed or reopened as a charter school in the first round of SIG grants.

Aspects of the SIG model were incorporated into the quid pro quo arrangement for states to receive waivers. But by and large, schools should now expect a gentler ride. Looking at data from the first round of SIG awards, the remaining 793 schools chose either the turnaround option, where the principal and 50 percent of instructional staff were replaced, or the transformation option, which allowed for a less-disruptive and rigid set of reforms to improve the school. Not surprisingly, the transformation model was the most popular, with 615 of the 843 signing on.

Even for states that have most of their schools at or exceeding expectations on AYP, Hyslop says swallowing the executive prophylactic to opt out of No Child Left Behind has its advantages. “They will no longer be under pressure to reach 100 percent student proficiency by 2014,” Hyslop says. “Every school in waiver-winning states will benefit from that provision.”

The tougher standards wouldn’t be complete without a call for college- and career-curriculum best practices that would justify a state’s increased cocktail of assessments. But with nearly every state and the District of Columbia likely to seek waivers, there’s a risk the new flexibilities issued by the administration will over-learn the monolithic hazards of NCLB. Hyslop agrees, but sees potential.

“If we have 50 different school improvement systems, let’s at least have one system for measuring whether they work,” she wrote previously. “Duncan’s waiver plan gives the federal government a chance to test these systems and find the most effective version” to incorporate into future law.

And yet, among education veterans, some cynicism remains. Given how much the administration is in need of a political victory, Bosher, the former superintendent of Virginia schools, cautions other states: “be careful negotiating with desperate people.”

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