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George W. Bush Institute Examines NCLB Waivers

The U.S. Department of Education is slated to announce another round of waivers from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act any day now. While you're waiting to find out if your state got the coveted flexibility, check out this analysis of the first 11 already-approved batch of waivers, done by the folks at the George W. Bush Institute.

Bush, of course, is super-closely associated with NCLB. And most Politics K-12 readers probably already know some of those who work at the Institute. The analysis was done in part by Kerri Briggs, who is now the director for education reform at the Institute. She served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bush, including as assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. She also served as the state superintendent for Washington, D.C.

So what's the analysis? The Institute came up with a list of 10 principles of a strong accountability system, including concrete goals, rigorous standards, valid assessments, and testing in science in at least one grade span.

Given that, the analysis raises some basic concerns across the waivers, including:

• States must focus special interventions on their bottom 5 percent of schools and the next 10 percent of low-performers. But the Institute's analysis considers those "arbitrary" percentages...and they wonder whether the bottom 6 and bottom 16 percent of schools are much different in terms of their performance. The Institute preferred an approach taken by other states that pledged to use the same interventions across schools that fell into the same category—for instance those that earned an "F" on an A through F grading scale.
• Some states don't add new schools to the bottom 5 and next 10 percent (priority and focus) lists for three years. That leaves schools stuck in improvement for a long time and states may miss others that begin to slip.
• Many states didn't do a good job of spelling out how they would cope with accountability while transitioning from one system to another. "It's not an easy thing to move from one system to another," Briggs said in an interview.
• Lots of states got rid of their tutoring and school choice provisions—a move the department seems to have encouraged. The Institute is worried about what will happen to students in those schools in the meantime.
• "Super subgroups" could obscure the performance of some students by lumping groups such as English-language learners and students in special education together for accountability purposes. That's a concern many in the civil rights community share.

So which states stood up particularly well to scrutiny? Florida appears to have done the best, meeting all 10 of the Institute's criteria. It's worth noting that the Sunshine state's former commissioner, Eric Smith, now a fellow at hte Insittute, helped come up with the list of features. Every other state either only partially met, didn't meet, or was unclear on at least one of the other criteria.

Briggs played a key role in implementing the NCLB law when she worked at the U.S. Department of Education. I asked her whether folks should view the analysis as being written by someone trying to defend the current law.

No, Briggs told me. While her time at the department was obviously important and influential, she and Smith are also looking at the plans through the eyes of former state school chiefs.

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