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Education Opinion

Don’t Throw NCLB Waivers Out with the Bathwater

By Jonathan A. Plucker — April 03, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is guest-posting this week.

As a policy researcher who moonlights as a psychologist, my perspective is often quite different from other education policy researchers and analysts. This policy/psychology perspective is admittedly unique, but it does give me a different angle on policy from time to time.

This was starkly apparent as I monitored reactions to the NCLB/ESEA waiver process.

The process has been the subject of much eye-rolling and consternation, but I worry that people have been too quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Or, more specifically, they’ve been too quick to reject the outcomes due to concerns about the process.

Was the process less-than-ideal? Almost certainly. Based on my conversations with people from states who applied, it could have run more smoothly. The “beg at the feet of the authorities” issue raised by Rick Hess, among others, is not insignificant, and I’ve been discouraged by the extent to which special interest groups may have exerted behind-the-scenes influence.

At the same time, nothing this important ever goes remotely according to plan the first time around. The political nature of the waiver process is not terribly surprising--anything related to NCLB/ESEA is by definition political. And, as in past years, I don’t sense enough determination by policymakers to tackle reauthorization right now. All of this leads me to the point where I’m not thrilled with the process issues, but I understand how we arrived at this situation.

All of that said, from the perspective of someone who studies the psychology of creativity, if asked how the federal government could promote greater innovation in state-level education policy, I would have approached it roughly the same way: Unleash the creative power and knowledge of local context within the states in order to come up with better ways of achieving a set of predetermined goals. It’s an approach rooted in creativity and innovation research (i.e., it’s very difficult to predict which ideas will be the most effective, better to try lots of things and evaluate their effectiveness) and federalism (i.e., states matter). Taking this experimental approach appears to be the most likely way to identify potential fixes for a reauthorized ESEA.

But regardless of where one falls on the process issues, shouldn’t the outcomes be getting more attention? My sense is that the waiver process produced some good outcomes. I’m most familiar with Indiana’s application and approved waiver, and I’ll limit my examples to the Hoosier State (although many of the approved changes are similar to those in other waiver-approved states). With the advent of NCLB, Indiana was stuck in a situation where it was essentially using two distinct accountability systems for its schools--the much-maligned AYP system and the state’s own system, usually referred to as PL221--(established in 1999 but not fully implemented until 2004-2005). To complicate matters, a school or district could not rank highly on PL221 if they didn’t also make AYP--even though the two systems were based on completely distinct philosophies and used different metrics. It’s hardly surprising that poll after poll demonstrated that the public was very confused about the dueling systems.

Many of the specific reforms in the state’s waiver application--such as the new super group approach to addressing the needs of low-performing students--appear to address many of the weaknesses of the AYP and PL221 approaches. For example, the new approach should ironically have far fewer children “left behind.” And again, this process gives us a unique opportunity to examine which reforms work best across different contexts, a perspective and approach that was completely absent from the implementation of NCLB (which allowed states too much flexibility in goal-setting and metrics and too little flexibility regarding interventions).

And perhaps most importantly, the Indiana waiver aligns fairly closely to reforms the state was going to do anyway. Aligning the state and federal reform priorities and efforts will go a long way to clarifying our shared educational goals, lessening public confusion, and hopefully leading to more public support and better student outcomes. After reading the approved waiver materials, my first thought was, “This should be good for Indiana.” I’ve seen and heard little in the ensuing weeks that would lead me to rethink that assessment.

In closing, and in the spirit of states who are grading schools as part of their accountability systems, I’d give an A for the idea of the waiver process, a B- or C+ for implementation, and an incomplete for impact--but I’m optimistic these initiatives will bear significant fruit.

--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.