Standards Opinion

Duncan’s Dilemma: What will be Done to States without NCLB Waivers?

By Anthony Cody — December 16, 2011 4 min read
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As No Child Left Behind becomes an ever bigger disaster, Secretary Duncan faces a major dilemma. How can he continue to enforce this law he has declared a train wreck?

Last spring, in an attempt to goad Congress into accepting his formula for revising No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made some dire predictions.

In his testimony, he said:

...we did an analysis which shows that -- next year -- the number of schools not meeting their goals under NCLB could double to over 80 percent -- even if we assume that all schools will gain as much as the top quartile in the state.
So let me repeat that: four out of five schools in America many not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: states and districts all across American may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of the schools' individual needs.

The latest news indicates that Secretary Duncan was a bit off in his prediction. According to an analysis by the Center on Education Policy, “only” 48% of the nation’s schools will be failures according to the NCLB yardstick. There are indications that some states may have softened up their requirements, and clearly we have different measurement systems in place, when we see that 81% of the schools in Massachusetts will fail, while only 22% of those in Louisiana will do so. It is unlikely the schools in Louisiana are that much better than those in Massachusetts. Test scores and proficiency rates are subject to manipulation for political and financial purposes - and that is what NCLB has been all about from the start.

Secretary Duncan’s visit to Congress was similarly a use of test scores for political purposes. But his efforts to intimidate Congress did not get anywhere, and a revised NCLB does not appear to be on the likely to happen any time soon. That left him scrambling for Plan B, which was the NCLB waiver process. States were invited to apply for waivers, which required the submission of reform plans aligned with the Departments vision for reform.

Let’s look at this deal a bit more closely. We have a law that Duncan himself described as a train wreck. In his testimony last Spring, Duncan said:

This law is fundamentally broken and we need to fix it this year. It has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We want to get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair, flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.
We need a common-sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility -- and the basic problem is that NCLB got it backwards. Instead of being tight on the goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on the goals but tight on the means. We need to flip that and states are already leading the way.

Here is where educators have been crying foul for the past two years.
Duncan claims he wishes to grant flexibility. In fact, the requirements for Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers are even MORE prescriptive than NCLB ever was. In order to be granted a waiver from the onerous effects of the law, states were required to submit plans for teacher and principal evaluations that include student test scores, the embrace of the Common Core standards, and new standards for College and Career Readiness.
Secretary Duncan has repeatedly defended the Common Core Standards from the charge that they are stealth national standards by claiming that they are an initiative of the states that are involved. But does not this become a federal project when essential federal aid is made contingent on implementation of these standards?

But now we have hit a major bump in the road, and Duncan faces a real dilemma. While eleven states have applied for NCLB waivers, another 39 have not. And that 39 includes some of the biggest and most influential states in the nation. The state of California has rejected the waiver process completely, and Governor Jerry Brown has made it clear he is not on board with the ever-expanding testing craze.

So how can Duncan respond? He has effectively coerced eleven states into applying for waivers, and implementing the changes he wanted, and in exchange they will get relief from NCLB. But can he possibly justify enforcing this unpopular law he has declared “broken” on the other 39 states?

The chances are that in the short term we will get some compromise, where the states that get waivers will be rewarded with the “flexibility” to do exactly what Duncan has required them to do. The rest will get some compromise. Just enough relief from NCLB to prevent outright rebellion, but not enough to allow states to shift away from the relentless pressure to raise test scores that has been the hallmark of the law.

But in the bigger picture, Duncan’s dilemma is an indication of the way the federal government has made itself irrelevant to real school reform.
No Child Left Behind was a do or die gambit on the part of “reformers.” The year 2014 was supposed to find every child in the nation proficient. All the rhetoric was about civil rights and equal opportunities. But the reality of the past decade has been a systematic shift towards greater economic and racial segregation, and the Department of Education lacks credibility in the minds of teachers and parents.

As the year 2014 approaches, and the schools have been unable to flip a switch and fix the nation’s social problems, we need to take a hard look at how schools go about serving their students. Slogans, standards, and tests have not and will not uplift our communities. We should shift our focus away from sweeping reforms intended to “force” schools to improve, using penalties for low test scores as the motivator. Our teachers, parents and students working together, school by school, on meaningful projects - that is how we will resurrect the spirit of American education.

What do you think of Duncan’s dilemma? How can the Federal government continue to enforce a law everyone agrees is broken?

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