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White House ready to leave No Child Left Behind behind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2011 - If education officials in Washington want to give states more flexibility in spending about $1 billion in federal money, and more freedom from the strict mandates of No Child Left Behind, their counterparts in Missouri and Illinois are more than ready to consider the deal.

On Friday, President Barack Obama announced in Washington plans to ease the requirements of the Bush-era education act that increasingly have been seen as impossible to meet and unfairly labeling many good schools as failures.

"I want to say the goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable," Obama said, "and President Bush deserves credit for that. Higher standards are the right goal. Accountability is the right goal. Closing the achievement gap is the right goal. And we've got to stay focused on those goals. But experience has taught us that, in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them. 

"Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test.  Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out. And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom instead of a Race to the Top. They don't want to get penalized? Let's make sure that the standards are so low that we're not going to be seen failing to meet them. That makes no sense."

A year ago, the White House sent a comprehensive plan to Congress to change the law -- including leaving behind the old title in favor of the more bureaucratic Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- so that initiatives for improvements in the nation's schools could come from states and local districts, not from Washington. It wanted changes in place before classes reconvened for the 2011-12 school year.

But the administration's plan failed to win bipartisan support and, in the words of a senior administration official who briefed education reporters on Thursday, "the reality is, another school year started under a broken law."

So, using the authority that the White House said it had under the law, Obama said that the Department of Education should take advantage of what an administration official called the "absolutely stunning" reform movements by states across the country and relieve them from many of the burdens imposed by the law -- in exchange for progress in very specific areas.

"Keep in mind," the president added, "the change we're making is not lowering standards; we're saying we're going to give you more flexibility to meet high standards. We're going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future. Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee -- but every student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what state they live in.

"Let me repeat: This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability. In fact, the way we've structured this, if states want more flexibility, they're going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards, that prove they're serious about meeting them."

Chris Nicastro, Missouri commissioner for elementary and secondary education who attended Friday's White House announcement, welcomed the opportunity, though she added she needed to study the details before determining whether Missouri would actually apply for a waiver.

"We are pleased to be able to consider such a waiver, but it is too early to say whether the state of Missouri will apply," said Nicastro in a statement released Friday morning. "We remain absolutely committed to accountability, but we believe the outdated NCLB accountability system is broken. The need to fix it is urgent."

Matt Vanover, a spokesman for her counterpart in Illinois, Christopher Koch, who also attended Obama's announcement, said a newly reauthorized law would have been preferable to waivers from existing requirements. But if that isn't going to happen, the ability to get out from under some of the more onerous mandates of No Child Left Behind would be a good option.

"We agree with the broad outlines that are out there," Vanover said, "and we agree there need to be major changes. We still need to see what states and districts would be committing to."

No Retreat from Accountability

Administration officials emphasized that this swap -- easing mandates in exchange for new reform efforts -- is not a step back from requiring schools and states to be accountable. Instead, said one, it is a recognition that "the best ideas will always come from the states and school districts that want to do the right thing. Our role is to get out of the way."

It's also a recognition that when the original law was passed 10 years ago, many innovations and reforms had not yet been developed, so in some ways No Child Left Behind has hindered states that wanted to try out new ways of improving student performance. Such experimentation should increase under the waiver plan, the official said, adding:

"We are not interested in giving flexibility in return for business as usual."

Announcing the requirements to win a waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind, the White House set out a three-part test.

First, states have to show they are moving to standards and assessments that determine whether students are graduating ready for college or a career. Specifically, the administration said that students have to show proficiency in reading and language arts as well as math. The standards and tests would apply to all students, including those who are learning English and those who have disabilities.

Second, states have to develop systems that recognize and reward the highest-achieving schools that serve students from low-income families and those that show the greatest student progress. For schools among the lowest-performing in a state, generally the bottom 5 percent, state would have to put into place strict interventions to improve the levels of achievement sharply. For another 10 percent with low graduation rates, large achievement gaps or poor performance in student subgroups, specific strategies will have to be put into place to turn the situation around.

Finally, states have to evaluate and support teachers and principals for effectiveness. Using systems developed through consultation with teachers and principals, states must determine how well their students have performed over time and how teachers can improve as the result of specific feedback.

Not a Competition

Administration officials stressed that the waiver program will not be a competition, like the Race to the Top program where states vied for a share of federal money. They expect and encourage all states to apply for the waivers, rather than be governed by the No Child Left Behind mandates that they said have unintentionally become barriers to reform, not incentives.

For states that meet the criteria set by Washington for waivers, the rewards include a greater degree of flexibility in several areas:

  • Instead of having to meet the current requirement of having 100 percent of students score proficient by 2014, states may establish their own goals -- characterized in a White House fact sheet as "ambitious but achievable" -- that would support progress for all schools and all students.
  • Instead of being tagged as failing when in fact students were making acceptable progress, states may design a system of measurements and accountability targeting the poorest-performing schools and tailored to the needs of students there. Schools that perform the best or make the most progress may also win recognition in such systems.
  • Instead of using federal money in strictly defined ways, states, districts and schools can use the funding for various programs in ways that will best serve what students need.

In introducing the waiver program Friday morning, Obama stressed the urgency and the stakes.
"This isn't just the right thing to do for our kids," he said, "it's the right thing to do for our country.  We can't afford to wait for an education system that is not doing everything it needs to do for our kids.  We can't let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn't have the courage to recognize what doesn't work, admit it, and replace it with something that does.  We've got to act now."

Already in Progress

States that have already made progress on school reform may begin applying for waivers in mid-November, administration officials said, with the waivers to be granted beginning next year. A second round of applications could come in January.

Though there will be a strict peer review process to determine whether a waiver is given, an administration official emphasized that the process is not simply a matter of exchanging one set of mandates for another.

"This isn't about jumping through hoops," the officials said. "It's about supporting good work that is happening already all through the country."

The White House noted that already, more than 40 states have adopted the common standards and assessments that the waiver rules are designed to encourage, and most of them are developing accountability systems guided by principles developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is currently headed by Koch of Illinois.

Vanover, his spokesman, noted that No Child Left Behind has brought some good developments, including a focus on making sure that students in certain subgroups meet academic standards.

"But many people feel there needs to be a new generation of accountability systems out there," he added. "Rather than punitive measures with unrealistic targets, maybe we should be concentrating on student growth and providing incentives to schools."

This year, Vanover said, Illinois' target is having 85 percent of its students score proficient or above on state tests. That goal will rise to 92.5 percent in each of the next two years before hitting the federally mandated 100 percent of adequate yearly progress in 2014.

When schools fail to make that grade, he noted, the result can be damaging, even if students are making good progress.

"When somebody tells you you're not worthy," Vanover said, "it's going to take a toll on your psyche. We have some very good schools out there not making AYP, and that's because the targets are getting to the point where they are very high. You can have some districts scoring at 95 or 98 percent, but maybe this year the low-income subgroups score less than that and may not be making AYP, even though they're still doing well."

Nicastro said that Missouri's move toward a new evaluation system for school districts, known as MSIP5, encompasses many requirements that the White House is looking for before it grants waivers, including consultation with a wide variety of stakeholders in school success.

"At first glance, it appears the waiver could support our state's high standards and accountability principles," she said. "We are already establishing a framework to push toward excellence, reduce gaps in academic achievement and ensure all students graduate from high school ready for college and careers. Barring any surprises in the fine print, it may be a good fit."

She said that before Missouri determines whether to apply for a waiver, more discussions with such groups would be held. The state Board of Education would make the final determination on whether a waiver would be sought, Nicastro said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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