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Ten States Get NCLB Waivers, New Mexico Has to Wait

By Michele McNeil — February 09, 2012 7 min read
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By Sean Cavanagh

Ten of 11 states that applied for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act have received that flexibility from federal officials, while one of them, New Mexico, has not yet been granted it, the U.S. Department of Education said today.

The states awarded waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

The waivers allow states to escape from some of the central provisions and sanctions associated with the decade-old federal law, policies that critics have branded onerous and unrealistic. In exchange, states have agreed to set new academic targets and establish new strategies for evaluating educators and turning around struggling schools, among other expectations.

Federal officials plan to work with New Mexico to modify the state’s waiver plan so that is acceptable, a U.S. Department of Education official told Education Week.

Three of the 10 states that were given waivers were awarded them on a “conditional” basis, meaning they will be expected to make changes to their plans, the official said. More details on the state waiver plans are expected later today.

The Obama administration unveiled its official plan to grant waivers back in September, after months of anticipation. The administration has said it was essentially compelled to grant waivers to states because of federal lawmakers’ inability, or unwillingness, to reauthorize the law, which has left states to cope with a flawed policy with increasingly dire consequences for schools.

“After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,” President Obama said in a statement this morning. "[I]f we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also offered a statement touting the waivers as plans crafted in the states, rather than at the federal level.

“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.

[UPDATE: In a conference call with reporters, Duncan offered few details about what specific flaws federal officials had found in New Mexico’s waiver application.

Duncan told reporters that New Mexico’s initial application was “incomplete,” adding that while the state had made “night and day” improvements to it, it still needs more work. He said he was confident the state’s waiver plan will be approved.

“We think they’re very, very, close,” he said.

New Mexico’s Secretary-designate of Education, Hanna Skandera, attributed her state’s denial partly to its relatively slow progress implementing common-core academic standards. “That was the big piece,” she said in an interview.

But the New Mexico official said the state had made recent breakthroughs in that area and other portions of its application, and expects to be approved soon. The state is implementing an A-F school grading and a system that give schools credit for student academic progress. Securing the waiver would give the state greater flexibility in many areas, she said, including how it uses federal funds.

“The bottom line is we’re excited, we’re optimistic, and stay tuned,” Skandera said.]

Janet Barresi, Oklahoma’s superintendent of schools, said her state’s approved waiver plan is conditioned on the state finalizing the details of a plan to assign schools A-F grades. The state’s application also promised a new teacher-evaluation system and an accountability system that takes into account student academic growth, among other strategies.

“I almost hate to use the word ‘waiver’ because it sounds like we are relaxing things, when in fact it will allow us new flexibility to refocus and be proactive,” Barresi, an elected Republican, told Education Week. “I think this will be a game-changer in Oklahoma.”

Barresi noted that she supported the No Child Left Behind Act and wants to see Congress reauthorize it. The waivers won’t override the law, she said, but “supplement” it.

The Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates for closing learning gaps between white and minority children, said the awarding of waivers, on their the own, don’t mean much. The real test will be come in whether stay committed to their plans over time, said the group, which supported the original No Child Left Behind law.

"[T]he East Room of the White House is a long way from the classrooms of our country,” said Amy Wilkins, the organization’s vice president for government affairs and communications, in a statement. “So we all need to hold our applause until we see what these waivers yield for our students, particularly our most vulnerable.”

In order to secure waivers from the law, states have to agree to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards, such as the Common Core State Standards approved by 46 states and the District of Columbia; put in place new systems for evaluating teachers and principals; and come up with aggressive plans to improve the performance of low-performing schools.

In addition, states will be expected to establish new testing and accountability systems, which set “ambitious but achievable” academic targets, and could account for growth in student academic progress over time. Those systems should also include interventions tailored to the needs of specific student populations.

In exchange, states will be freed from a deadline—widely criticized as unrealistic—that all students be deemed “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, and from sanctions imposed on schools that fail to meet the law’s academic targets.

Eleven states met an initial deadline for submitting waiver applications, in November. Twenty-eight additional states have submitted applications for a second cutoff date, later this month. Others states will be allowed to apply throughout the rest of the year.

States that don’t secure waivers will be expected to comply with the existing law, federal officials say.

While Duncan has the final say on which states are granted waivers and under what circumstances, the department also arranged to have peer reviewers judge states’ applications on how well they meet the requirements spelled out by the administration.

The NCLB law, the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was approved by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The law required schools to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and raise their performance over time, with the goal of having all students reach academic proficiency by that 2014 deadline. Schools that do not meet academic targets face increasingly stiff penalties, which potentially include having to provide tutoring and support services, replacing staff, and restructuring schools.

Backers of No Child Left Behind say it established a set of clear and demanding expectations for schools—and for judging the academic performance of often-overlooked subgroups of students, such as minorities and English-language learners. The law says test results for those student groups must be reported individually.

But the law has drawn scorn from educators who say it has fostered a test-obsessed school culture and narrowed the curriculum by forcing schools to focus on math and reading at the expense of subjects like science, art, and electives. Other critics have said the law’s measurements of student progress are crude and unrealistic, and has invited states to weaken standards to give the appearance that their schools are making academic strides.

Others, by contrast, say the law’s sanctions have not brought improvements in struggling schools, partly because proposed interventions were not targeted to schools’ weaknesses or could not win the backing of state and local policymakers.

Against that backdrop, a number of states have grown increasingly defiant in telling federal officials they would ignore proficiency targets, in the hope of preventing waves of schools from triggering sanctions for poor performance under the law.

At the same time, at least 11 states initally indicated they would not apply for waivers. Officials in some of those states, like Pennsylvania and Montana, have suggested that the administration’s waiver offer would require them to trade one set of federal mandates for another. Others, like Nebraska, have voiced worried about having to overhaul their accountability systems to meet the waiver guidelines.

Staff writer Nora Fleming contributed to this report.

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