The Obama administration is demanding education reform from Congress, but instead of waiting for lawmakers to act, President Obama granted waivers to ten states on Thursday allowing them to implement their own reforms instead of meeting the No Child Left Behind Act's (NCLB) 2014 deadline for reading and math proficiency.
Educators and lawmakers agree that NCLB, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, is problematic because it punishes lower-performing schools and causes teachers to teach to the test, but Congress has yet to come up with reforms that lawmakers can agree on.
"As I've traveled the country, I've yet to meet a teacher or principal who's scared of accountability. What they always ask is that it simply be fair," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We believe this emphasis on growth and progress, rather than absolute test scores, levels the playing field, which is what great teachers and principals have long, long asked for."
The White House announced that the first states to receive waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. New Mexico is very close to finishing its application, Duncan said.
Twenty-eight other states, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have expressed interest in seeking a waiver.
Instead of hammering students to meet the NCLB standardized reading and math test requirements by 2014, the ten states will implement broader plans to prepare students for college and careers. The plans can rely on science, social studies and other subjects to measure student achievement. Schools can be exempted from federal penalties for failing to meet NCLB standards, but must work toward improving low-performing schools.
"The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones," Obama said. "But we need to do it in a way that doesn't force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures."
Minnesota, Massachusetts and Tennessee, for example, are pairing high and lower-performing schools together to share best practices and increase capacity at the lower-performing schools, Duncan said. Kentucky is including arts, humanities and world languages in its performance reviews.
"We want high standards, and we'll give you flexibility in return," Obama said. "We combine greater freedom with greater accountability. Because what might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky - but every student should have the same opportunity to reach their potential."
"Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students," Duncan said.
The waivers appear to be a partial victory for embattled districts and schools struggling to meet NCLB's rigid requirements. Any state receiving a waiver "has to target 25 percent of funding to the lowest-performing schools," explained Diane Stark Rentner, director of national programs for the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. This may be good news for those schools, Rentner said, but it's not a total solution.
"The question becomes," said Rentner, "what happens to those schools who are not the worst schools but are also not great schools?"
Meanwhile, Congress continues to stall on education reform, and some Republicans complained that the Obama administration was overreaching with its authority by issuing the waivers. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), a ranking member on a Senate education committee, accused Obama of politicizing education policy and playing a "political poker chip," according to The Washington Times.
"Maybe this will have another effect of making the Democrats and the Republicans try to come to some kind of agreement, and maybe there will be a deal authorized by the end of the year, but I wouldn't bet money on it," Rentner said.
There are 11 states that have yet to indicate whether they will apply for a waiver, including California, which has been criticized for waiting on its decision. But some education advocates and officials say it's more complicated.
"It's a good thing that California is taking its time with this decision. The waiver process that the Department of Education has set out, especially for these first ten states that got the waivers ... was extremely accelerated," said Tara Kini, a staff attorney for the anti-poverty law firm Public Advocates, where she works on education equity issues. "We shouldn't be making state education policy behind closed doors," Kini added. "It's hard to imagine that meaningful public participation actually happened in the first round."
While California's State Board of Education says it is continuing to weigh its options and input from the state's Department of Education, California, like many states, faces real consequences if it either does not apply for or is not issued a waiver.
"A lot of schools and districts will probably be labeled failures if they haven't already," said Kini. "That would include a lot of schools that are serving low-income students and students of color, but it includes a broad swathe of schools because of the flawed ethics of No Child Left Behind."