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No Child Left Behind education policy hangs on

Is this good news, or bad? That depends on who’s asking.

In Minnesota three weeks ago to promote an early childhood education proposal, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was remarkably thin on details how his proposal would be implemented.
Courtesy of the Governor's office

To education policymakers who are not breathing the politicized air trapped inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, it’s starting to look like President Obama will be out of office before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is rewritten — if ever.

Expressed another way, that would mean the nation could go a minimum of a full decade with no clearly articulated, guiding education policy. NCLB would remain the law of the land, but at least the 39 states, the District of Columbia and the eight California school districts so far granted waivers from compliance can ignore it.

Is this good news, or bad? That depends on who’s asking.

The stalemate does nothing to endear the Congressional leaders on either side of the aisle to their gridlock-weary constituents, or to codify a policy roadmap. And it would leave Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, with a less-than-glamorous legacy to extoll.

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Nor does the term “waiver” communicate either a cohesive vision or a sense of urgency about the number of schools that are failing to reach disadvantaged kids. And charter schools will not receive as much expansion assistance as they would have under a bill passed by the House of Representatives last month but destined for a veto.

In practice, however, the waivers do represent the administration’s vision. And because they are given to states and districts that commit to plans of their own devising, Minnesota’s education establishment can operate within accountability measures that give them badly needed flexibility.

The question mark being Obama’s successor. If he or she is able to shake things loose in Congress, the negotiations necessary to craft a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law typically referred to as NCLB, could end up mandating a different system than the ones painstakingly constructed over the last two years.

And so even as members of both parties in Congress are making noise about their commitment to passing an overhaul, Duncan appears to have hit the cruise control.

In Minnesota three weeks ago to promote an early childhood education proposal, Duncan was remarkably thin on details how his proposal — released as the House passed a GOP-crafted NCLB rewrite — would be implemented.

In a lengthy interview published earlier this week in Education Week, the secretary waved off suggestions that a recently revealed school evaluation scandal involving Indiana’s substitute accountability system was cause for concern. Duncan insisted that the system had worked, even though it was the Associated Press that found that a former state superintendent had inflated ratings for a political patron’s charter school.

In Minneapolis last week for a conference, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said she thought a call to action by the president, followed by the expenditure of some of his political capital, could break the logjam.

Kline’s proposal

When Republican Rep. John Kline took over the House’s powerful Education and the Workforce Committee in 2010, he and Duncan seemed to share a surprising number of common goals regarding schools. Both favored the expansion of the charter sector, for example, as well as use of student data in teacher evaluations.

Kline did not, however, like the idea of continuing to fund the Obama administration’s stimulus spending — the marquee education initiative of its first term. And the GOP’s Tea Party wing did not like much of Kline’s vision, preferring instead to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

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Although it did for the first time reveal the number of schools that were failing poor children and children of color, NCLB was widely considered a failure. Using a fatally flawed testing regime, it punished schools where too few students tested proficient.

With the most draconian of the sanctions were set to kick in last year and Congress immobile, Duncan in 2011 offered to give states waivers from compliance provided they proved they would implement better school accountability and improvement regimes.

Minnesota promised to continue implementing a statewide teacher and principal evaluation system, to put the lowest-performing schools on turbo-charged turnaround plans and to set measurable performance objectives.

A major component of Minnesota’s waiver is the new Multiple Measures Ratings scale, which was designed to show state officials and district leaders how much progress was being made — or not — with even small subsets of students. Rather than punishing a school or classroom teacher for a lack of proficiency, it exposes gaps in achievement.

Duncan’s DOE, in turn, established a monitoring process that is supposed to show clearly whether the state’s individualized plan is working. In theory, when the feds issue guidelines for applying for a renewal of the waiver, which expires at the end of the coming school year, the accumulated data should help streamline the process.

What all of this means, then, is that Duncan is getting what he wants, if in piecemeal fashion. Earlier this week he even managed to fire an effective warning shot at the 10 states that have not applied for waivers or whose requests were rejected.

California’s initial waiver request was rejected because it did not call for the use of student test data in teacher evaluations. Duncan Tuesday granted an unprecedented waiver request filed by a consortium of eight California districts representing a million students, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. The districts all agreed to the accountability measures.

And so there is more risk than upside for the administration in spending more energy on NCLB. The House bill passed in July removes incentives for states to maintain current levels of school funding, would no longer require their plans to be approved by the DOE and would eliminate more than 70 “ineffective and unnecessary” programs, including the Promise Neighborhoods.

Senate plan

A Senate version authored by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin looks remarkably like Duncan’s waiver outline. It is said to have the votes to get to the Senate floor but zero possibility of passing there.

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Needless to say, if both versions made it to conference committee a compromise is hard to imagine. And Obama has signaled a willingness to veto Kline’s measure.

And so by the time his successor has to decide whether to tackle NCLB head-on or continue to create policy in bite-sized chunks, states will have spent six years investing in their new systems. If the new president thinks Congress is a formidable roadblock, he or she will likely face a revolt by the states’ top teachers.