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Educators cheer Dayton’s NCLB waiver move

“We’ve been stuck in this box where we aren’t able to innovate,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Yesterday, Gov. Mark Dayton made it official: Minnesota will apply for a waiver from compliance with No Child Left Behind. In fact, even though they know only the broad parameters of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s waiver program, announced Friday, state officials said they hope to have a preliminary request in Washington in a matter of days.

Within minutes of Dayton’s announcement, the news was being cheered by administrators at a number of Twin Cities school districts and officials at the state Department of Education. 

“It’s about time,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in an interview yesterday. “Minnesota educators and national educators have been talking about this for a long time.”

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Indeed, when George W. Bush’s marquee education reform initiative was first passed a number of Minnesota policymakers — most notably the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and then-state Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins — ventured a prediction: Fatal flaws in the law’s underlying methodology would propel Minnesota’s highest-performing schools onto the list of failures.

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‘Best’-list schools called failing
Fast forward a decade and it’s actually worse than critics imagined. Not only are some of the Twin Cities schools that regularly turn up on the “best” lists in newsstand glossies failing, Minnesota schools are failing at a rate that’s dramatically higher than other states’.

In 2010, Minneapolis’ Southwest High School made more than 96 percent of performance targets but is not making AYP. The year before, Edina High School failed to make AYP despite graduating 100 percent of its seniors.

There are great “failing” schools in St. Louis Park, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville and elsewhere. Indeed, at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, according to an analysis by the Regional Educational Laboratory, 51.2 percent of Minnesota school districts were failing, or “in improvement.”

NCLB’S methodology stinks, but the state is also a victim of its historically high standards, Cassellius explained. If we had done what other states have in anticipation of exactly this Catch-22 and lowered our definition of academic proficiency years ago, we might only be failing at the 21 percent rate of Illinois, the Midwestern state with the second most “failing” districts.

The next highest states: Ohio at 19.0 percent and Indiana at 14.4 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, just 6.6 percent of Iowa’s districts are deemed to be failing, a mere 0.5 percent of Wisconsin’s and less than 0.1 percent of Michigan’s.

Each state sets own standard
In an effort to compel underperforming schools to reach out to every pupil, NCLB requires states to test students in different grades for proficiency in several subjects. Each state sets its own standard for proficiency and creates (or more often buys) corresponding tests. 

Anticipating this bind, many states either set a low bar for proficiency to start with or have quietly lowered standards as the stakes have gone up. Minnesota has the largest achievement gap in the country, but has resisted this type of fix, Cassellius said.

Additionally, there’s broad agreement the type of test prescribed by NCLB, which compares one year’s fifth-graders to another’s, is not the kind of gap-identifying assessment educators actually need to tell exactly where individual kids need targeted skills coaching.

“We’re over-testing our kids, and they don’t know which tests are important,” said Cassellius. “We need to give real information to teachers that is helpful to them that day, that week, that year.”

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Each year, individual schools and districts have to show progress toward increasing the number of students who score proficient. Scores are broken down by race, income and special education status.

The consequences
A school that doesn’t post enough passing scores fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. No AYP for two or more consecutive years means a school faces an escalating series of consequences, ranging from setting aside a significant chunk of its budget for private tutoring services to wholesale restructuring.

Educators in schools both wealthy and poor have long complained that this puts them in a bind. For struggling schools with a disproportionate number of poor students and kids with special needs, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In wealthy, high-performing schools, an absurdly small number of pupils not passing the test can mean no AYP.

In either case, no AYP means a school must spend its staff time and dollars complying with federal mandates instead of tailoring instruction to its particular learners or, in the case of the high performers, soaring past proficiency toward excellence.

When Bush left office, there was bipartisan agreement that NCLB, which expires this year, needed to be thrown out and replaced. But progress toward a replacement has been glacial, particularly since Duncan and the powerful head of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, found themselves at loggerheads last spring.

Duncan wanted new reform act this summer
Duncan voiced his desire to have a new reform act finalized by the time pupils return to school in the fall. Kline, in turn, voiced his preference for tackling renewal piecemeal; his office began grumbling privately that he was having trouble reining in the more conservative members of his caucus.

In June, Duncan announced that he would begin entertaining requests for waivers from NCLB from states that were unfairly being penalized by the law. Applicants would have to agree to a basket of unspecified reforms — to be decided upon by the department and not Kline’s committee.

Last week, Duncan opened the door to states’ applications, saying detailed guidelines for the criteria that would be used to grant waivers will be available in September. He did talk about the framework, however.

As described by the New York Times, states will have to show that they will create or maintain high standards under which high school students are “college- and career-ready” at graduation, are working to train and evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores and are overhauling the lowest-performing schools.

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“What [Duncan is] saying is, ‘If I give you added flexibility, you have to show accountability,” said Cassellius. “We’ve been stuck in this box where we aren’t able to innovate.”

‘What if we had a better idea?’
Minneapolis Public Schools’ lobbyist Jim Grathwol has seen NCLB’s mandated responses to failure fail repeatedly. “What if we had a better idea?” he asked, rhetorically. “The idea that we could ask for a waiver as a district and boldly innovate — we’re thrilled.”

Edina Public Schools Superintendent Ric Dressen recalled a 2002 conversation with Wellstone, in which the senator predicted that the law’s end result would be widespread failure, particularly in places like Edina.

Educators know much more now about data’s potential for driving reform, he added. “I think we can do better,” he said. “NCLB has done some good things for education, has shed light on things that need attention. But from Washington to Edina — that’s a long way away.

“I think it’s very important that as the decisions go forward they are focused on our young people,” Dressen concluded. “This cannot be political.”