The Future of No Child Left Behind

This morning President Obama will announce that due to the intransigence of Congress, the administration is moving forward unilaterally to reform No Child Left Behind. In what is being referred to as the “waiver process,” the Department of Education will offer states the opportunity to ignore some of the law’s most absurd dictates—for example, that every single student be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014, regardless of whether a child is disabled or fluent in English—in exchange for embracing a narrower reform agenda.

The administration’s preferred reform strategies are no surprise, since they were also part of the earlier Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs. They include asking states to embrace the newCommon Core curriculum standards in high school math and English; using student performance data—often standardized test scores—to evaluate teachers and principals; and overhauling underperforming schools by replacing the principal or significant portions of the teaching force. States will also have the option of closing schools down entirely and “restarting” them under different management, sometimes a charter school operator.

But under the new waiver process, states will be expected to overhaul only the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools using these “whole school” reform strategies, while intervening in a less catastrophic way in an additional 10 percent of schools, those that show low performance for specific subgroups of students, such as African-Americans or Hispanics.

This is a significant change from the original NCLB, which asked states to intervene in every school labeled “failing.” According to the DOE, an estimated 80 percent of American schools are on track to “fail” by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent intervention requirement was always unrealistic, and could never have been enforced. Nevertheless, it is stigmatizing to states, teachers, schools, neighborhoods and students for schools to be labeled “failing,” so there is ample incentive for states to apply for the waivers.

House Republicans have been pushing their own education reform agenda, which would entail allowing local school districts to spend as they please funds currently intended only for disadvantaged and disabled students. The Obama administration has strongly resisted such proposals as an affront to civil rights, but its waiver process will allow some funding flexibility by allowing states to redirect about $1 billion currently allocated by NCLB for tutoring and school choice programs.

Only about 1 percent of eligible students were ever able to take advantage of the law’s “choice” provisions. Students in failing schools were theoretically allowed to transfer to a non-failing school within their own district, but in many troubled urban districts, the vast majority of schools are underperforming, and thus not attractive to transfers, while the few high-quality schools are oversubscribed, so unable to accommodate extra students.

The law’s tutoring mandates were similarly underutilized.

A more progressive rethinking of NCLB might have allowed students to transfer out of their home school districts to integrated, higher-performing suburban schools: we know from the experiences of Milwaukee, Seattle and Hartford that when such programs are available, they are extremely popular among low-income families and lead to improved academic outcomes.

On curriculum, it would have been worthwhile to encourage states to scale-up programs that introduce teenagers—in an academically rigorous way—to potential occupations, since we know one of the best ways to fight dropouts is to demonstrate to kids that education is relevant to their futures.

But the Obama administration remains committed to a narrower slate of reforms focused on curriculum standardization and value-added evaluation of teachers. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates in his recent blockbuster essay, these policies will continue to be controversial on both the left and right, as teachers’ unions and many parents resist test-driven instruction. Meanwhile, much of the Republican base has tired of bipartisan education reform, with the GOP primary field embracing a reactionary “parental rights” ideology that resists almost any federal effort to improve schools.

On school reform, the center is narrowing, but as usual, the Obama administration is rushing to stay within it.

cross-posted at The Nation

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