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Federal Opinion

The NCLB Waiver: A Common-Sense Solution

By Tony Bennett — August 22, 2011 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embraced a federal waiver process this month that will aid states burdened by certain outdated requirements within the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. His announcement is welcome news to state schools chiefs across the nation who are ready and able to provide local solutions to the most pressing challenges our education system faces.

To be clear, congressional reauthorization of a revamped ESEA is the best option for stakeholders at the district, state, and national levels. However, in the absence of congressional action, a waiver process that rewards reform-minded states with the freedom to innovate is an absolute necessity.

The most recent reauthorization of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, was signed into law in 2002. It established accountability requirements for states, calling on all schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in student performance and all educators to meet “highly qualified teacher” requirements. NCLB’s strong focus on school accountability was a vital addition to the federal law. Yet the AYP provision often has proven itself punitive rather than supportive to schools. The requirement on highly qualified teachers has been equally ineffective—amounting to a mere demonstration of certification rather than a mark of excellent teaching.

An effective waiver process won’t sacrifice the critical accountability provisions of the ESEA to provide the support and flexibility states and localities need to drive innovation and improvement. Reform-minded states like Indiana are calling on federal leaders to set high expectations for student success and to act decisively and swiftly if we fail to meet those expectations. In between, we ask for the flexibility to develop the best systems to help all our students reach their highest academic potential.

Only states that can demonstrate a clear commitment to comprehensive structural reform and the necessary infrastructure to successfully implement reforms should receive waivers. Consider, for example, waivers for the highly-qualified-teacher requirement; states like Indiana have moved to systems more focused on student outcomes that better reflect the intent of the federal law by ensuring every child has a quality teacher. Instead of measuring teacher quality based on inputs like college preparation and qualifying exams, our state soon will use annual teacher evaluations that consider factors that include student performance and growth. The result of this shift is a more accurate and valuable measure of teacher quality.

Likewise, states that have developed richer and more useful measures of school accountability should be granted waivers for AYP. Qualifying state-level systems must include transparent labels for school performance, with measures that include not just student performance on standardized tests, but also growth in performance year to year. Further, state alternatives to the AYP requirement should put a strong focus on efforts to close the achievement gaps that persist in every state.

Across the country, states like Indiana are advancing and implementing bold education reforms that are transforming the status quo in our nation’s schools—with the promise of dramatic gains for our nation’s children. At the heart of Indiana’s reforms is a commitment to setting high expectations for student achievement while empowering educators with the flexibility they need to reach those goals.

In many ways, this state-led reform movement has blazed the trail for a federal system that operates in a similarly effective manner. States should have the freedom to innovate as long as they are willing to embrace strong and swift accountability measures. At the federal level, expectations for a waiver policy should be high and clearly defined.

This formula is working for us in Indiana, and it will work for states across the nation if implemented correctly by the current U.S. Department of Education. I look forward to working with Secretary Duncan and schools chiefs nationwide to move this process forward.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as The NCLB Waiver: A Common-Sense Solution

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