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Obama: NCLB Waivers Not an ‘Escape’ From Accountability

By Michele McNeil — September 23, 2011 2 min read
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Since Congress can’t fix No Child Left Behind, President Barack Obama says he’s doing it himself.

That was the gist of Obama’s speech today in the East Room of the White House, which was packed with more than 200 education policy wonks and advocates who came for the kickoff of NCLB waiver season. The room was a who’s who in education: 22 state chiefs (including Massachusetts’ Mitchell Chester and Delaware’s Lillian Lowery); two governors (Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam who introduced the president, and Rhode Island’s Lincoln D. Chafee); U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa; plus folks like Dane Linn, of the National Governors Association, Gene Wilhoit, of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, and Mike Cohen, of Achieve.

“So starting today,” Obama told the crowd, “we’ll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards. ... This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability. In fact, the way we’ve structured this, if states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards, that prove they’re serious about meeting them.”

To get waivers, states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to them, adopt a differentiated accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of the most troubled schools, and create guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation systems that will be based in part on student growth and used for personnel decisions.

For the nitty-gritty details, including timelines states will have to meet, see this document.

It wasn’t Obama’s strongest speech on education, as he repeated many old lines about turning off the TV and Americans being out-competed. He talked more about the link between the economy and jobs, while the waiver part was almost secondary. Nonetheless, it gave the president, at a time when his approval ratings are low and unemployment high, a chance to almost singlehandedly take steps to fix a law that has become very unpopular among politicians, teachers, and schools.

There will be two rounds of waiver requests considered. The first set will be due Nov. 15, to be peer-reviewed in December, and the second set due in mid-February, for a Spring 2012 review.

While the waiver package looks strong, Charlie Barone, of the Democrats for Education Reform, cautioned that the real tricky work will come in judging the waiver proposals.

“The proof will be in who makes it, and who doesn’t,” Barone said after today’s White House event. From DFER’s perspective, there are a lot of states out there that simply aren’t ready to have such loose reins on their accountability systems.

“We profoundly hope states are better prepared for this responsibility than they were in the past,” the organization said in a statement. “Looking across the landscape and at the available data, in the case of the majority of states, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t worried.”

I talked to several chiefs at the event, including Delaware’s Lowery and Illinois’ Chris Koch, and they all welcomed the flexibility (though they still wanted to study the details). I have yet to come across a state that does not plan to apply for a waiver. Are there any out there? And to DFER’s point, are there any that don’t deserve a waiver?

Photo: President Barack Obama stands with educators and students in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 23 as he speaks about details to give states waivers from requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. (Charles Dharapak/AP)