Pop quiz: What do a president and his education secretary do when they want to tell states precisely how to go about reforming their schools, and yet — because their political opponents are busy whacking them with a giant stick inscribed “federalism” — want to cast their prescriptions as a way to increase flexibility.
Why, you’d probably create exactly what Barack Obama and Arne Duncan did with the set of instructions issued Thursday for the as-yet-unnamed judges who will evaluate states’ applications for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law.
Its 22 pages (PDF) are equal parts prescriptive and vague, strewn with acronyms, fonts and letters and numbers delineating sections and subsections followed by numbers with letters delineating still more. I’d compare it to the Rosetta Stone, but that we eventually decoded.
Under “2.B, Option A, iii,” this is what you find:
“If the SEA set AMOs that differ by LEA, school, or subgroup, do the AMOs require LEAs, schools, and subgroups that are further behind to make greater rates of annual progress?”
And then there’s “2.G, b.”:
“Is the SEA’s process for ensuring sufficient support for implementation in priority schools of meaningful interventions aligned with the turnaround principles (including through leveraging funds the LEA was previously required to reserve under ESEA section 1116(b)(10), SIG funds, and other Federal funds, as permitted, along with State and local resources) likely to result in successful implementation of such interventions and improved student achievement?”
Yes, these people are in charge of deciding whether American schoolchildren can read and write. I’m just sayin’.
I read the whole thing anyhow, and then I compared notes with a couple other masochists who have been following the political tug-of-war over scrapping and replacing the 10-year-old NCLB. The three-sentence primer you’ll need to get to the end of this post:
Republicans and Democrats alike agree the law needs replacing. With federalism the mantra of the moment in Washington, D.C., Republicans would like to do this by ceding as much federal involvement as possible. Duncan and his boss, on the other hand, know exactly how they think school reform should be done and a tendency, instead of simply saying as much, of offering prizes to anyone who can divine precisely what they want.
For example, Duncan is very much a fan of something called the Common Core Standards, which spell out what a decently educated student should know at various points. In part because some states dealt with NCLB by lowering standards so as to flunk fewer kids, a majority of our state governments got together and decided, without any federal prodding, we needed common standards.
Not too long ago, virtually all states were in favor of this completely voluntary, wholly sensible exercise. But then Duncan endorsed the effort by creating incentives for states to adopt Common Core in his last exercise at divination, the education stimulus funds competition Race to the Top.
Republicans were quick to snap back: Federalists should oppose the standards because they will lead to One National Curriculum.
Tea partiers go them one better: The standards teach the wrong thing about the Constitution, are too secular and do not adequately celebrate American exceptionalism. And let’s not even get started on science.
During Minnesota’s regular 2011 legislative session, GOP leaders passed a measure barring the state from adopting the standards. It disappeared during the special session that followed.
The guidelines released Thursday do not call for states to adopt Common Core. But a careful review of the four very dense pages calling for “college- and career-ready expectations for all students” suggests that while states are free to opt out of Common Core, the only way they’re getting a waiver is if they adopt something darn similar.
Beyond that, what you need to know is that the guidelines center on the same three big themes as Race to the Top: the aforementioned standards, teacher evaluation mechanisms that incorporate student achievement data, and strong interventions in the lowest-performing schools.
Last week, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was touted by Duncan as “an overachiever” and a “courageous leader” who was an example of the type of reformer the waivers were meant to assist. So does that mean Minnesota is a shoo-in for a waiver?
It’s a good question. Officials at the Department of Education say Minnesota’s standards are at or exceed Common Core and will be certified shortly. And they believe the teacher evaluation bill passed in July meets the waiver requirements, even if the state has yet to create the tool many districts will use to review teacher performance.
It wasn’t clear last week when Duncan was lauding Cassellius as first-in-class whether it would matter that there were details yet to decide. Since then DoE officials say they’ve learned enough they’re confident the teacher evaluation compromise will pass muster.
Similarly, state officials will be able to make the case that they are working very closely with districts that have federal school turnaround funds — the third plank here. But they have stopped short of the level of intervention some states are engaging in. Michigan, for example, simply took over its lowest-performing schools, putting them into a special district to be run by a turnaround czar.
In sum, the answer might be: States that have adopted Duncan’s agenda, albeit of their own volition or under some other name, can probably exhale. States where this is a work in progress can take comfort in the fact that Mr. Secretary seems to like multiple-round contests in which the also-rans get a look at the proposals that won the last rounds so as to refine their applications.