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Minnesota to be granted waiver from NCLB law

No Child Left Behind no more — at least for Minnesota.

This state will be among 10 that officially will learn — at 1 p.m. CST — that it has earned approval for its plan for doing better than the nation’s 11-year-old education reform law. A polarized Congress has agreed that NCLB is fatally flawed, but has made only cursory stabs at replacing it.

The waiver granted by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will free numerous Minnesota schools — including some that graduate most of their students — from compliance with a series of burdensome requirements to show continuous progress on standardized tests educators have long insisted have no practical value for students or teachers.

If the waiver process is anything like other Obama administration education initiatives, more than two dozen other states will scour the lengthy waiver applications submitted by Minnesota and other winning states to get an idea of the accountability measures that meet the feds’ loosely articulated benchmark for earning a waiver.

This morning officials at the state Department of Education would say only that they will have no comment until after an official announcement has been made.

An end run

Last summer, after it became clear that four years of debate by lawmakers on replacing NCLB had deadlocked, Duncan signaled his intent to end run Congress by freeing states that could demonstrate the ability to keep the pressure on their lowest performing schools from the law’s punitive measures.   

In each of the last seven years, more and more schools and districts were labeled failures under NCLB, many because small groups of students did not show progress on standardized tests everyone agreed were outdated and irrelevant. A marquee feature of George W. Bush’s first term in office, the 2001 act requires all students pass the tests by 2013-2014.

Under NCLB, schools had to show continuous progress on standardized tests or risk failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, as defined by the law. Because Minnesota sets high standards for student performance, the targets became harder to meet each year. Because of this, schools whose students post excellent test scores ended up labeled failures when a handful of kids didn’t do well.

Adding insult to injury, until recently the tests Minnesota used did not actually measure individual student growth or identify gaps in learning. Because poor schools that failed to show enough progress were forced to divert resources from the classroom, failure to make adequate progress became a self-perpetuating trap for programs with large numbers of struggling students.

297 districts technically failing

According to 2010’s test results, 1,048 Minnesota schools and 297 districts are technically failing, despite five years of progress. As a consequence, 157 were forced to set aside money that could better be used to implement classroom reforms. Others were forced to divert energy from programs that were working to comply with mandatory restructurings required of failing schools.

Many were also forced to undergo one of four rigidly prescribed school turnaround processes, a particularly painful process in small communities where the principal and teacher corps are limited.

In essence, the state is paying the price for refusing to compromise, Cassellius asserted when the waivers were first proposed. Anticipating just this bind, other states years ago lowered their definition of academic proficiency. Providing relief for states that have kept standards high in the face of this pressure is one justification for the waivers Duncan laid out.

Duncan proposed granting waivers to states that set or maintain high academic standards, institute teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student achievement data and make intensive efforts to turnaround the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools.

Cassellius got ahead of the pack

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius got out ahead of the pack, sending Duncan a letter [PDF] articulating her plans even before guidelines for requesting a waiver had been announced. In reply, she received an invitation to a White House event at which Duncan hinted broadly that Minnesota was a shoo-in.

Given three years in which performance targets for the state’s schools do not increase, Cassellius proposed, the state will institute a more effective system for measuring student performance that not only accurately depicts a school’s performance, but actually delivers teachers information they can use to help struggling students.

“Minnesota is not proud of the persistent and unacceptable disparities in achievement between and among students that plague our state, and we are urgently focused on correcting this intolerable reality,” Cassellius wrote. “This urgency has brought us to the cusp of nation-leading reform.”

The state’s proposal [PDF] needed just a few “tweaks” to become a winning application, he said: “What you guys submitted was so close.”

In recent weeks, the waivers had become the subject of any number of false starts among education policymakers, who have grown used to Duncan’s penchant for doing things at the last minute and keeping his cards close to the vest.

Last fall when he asked states to formulate plans to push struggling schools to do better, Duncan said he would announce the winners by mid-January. A second round of applications, to be submitted by states that would work from feedback on the first winners, were due a month later.

An early report said that New Mexico was the only first-round applicant that will be asked to revise and resubmit its application.

An election-year battle

Congress and the White House need to reauthorize and reform NCLB programs this year, setting up an election-year battle between Democrats and the Republican chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Minnesota’s John Kline. He has proposed a segmented approach to changing the law, and his committee passed three bills last summer doing just that. With one exception, they passed with strict partisan divisions:

  • The first bill eliminates more than 40 federal education programs deemed duplicative or ineffective.
  • The second bill makes it easier for states to develop and expand charter schools. This bill received bipartisan support.
  • The third bill allows local school districts to use some federal education money for purposes other than those to which it was originally dedicated.

Kline’s committee is prepping two additional bills meant to lessen the federal government’s impact in local school districts nationwide. Democrats have resisted the legislation.

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