On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on educators and students to advance a civil rights agenda that presses for equal opportunities—and not just equal rights.
"Integration alone doesn't guarantee a world-class education," he told the crowd in the auditorium at the School Without Walls, a magnet high school in the District of Columbia. "Civil rights means having the same opportunities as other people do. Too many left on the sidelines are black or brown or poor."
He touted the progress that's been made in K-12 schools across the country during the last several years, including reducing by 700,000 the number of students in so-called high school dropout "factories." He also noted that the achievement gap has narrowed on NAEP over the last several decades.
But he cited a long list of challenges, including gun violence that continues to be the leading cause of death among young black men, saying that "safety is a child's most fundamental civil right." And, Duncan called out North Carolina for paying teachers so little that they qualify for public assistance and Philadelphia for failing to invest in schools.
There was one important second-term priority that Duncan did not mention during his speech: waivers his department is granting under the No Child Left Behind Act.
His speech came the same day civil rights groups issued a new report that criticizes waivers for allowing states to get a pass on accountability for subgroups of at-risk students, such as poor or minority children.
Specifically, the Campaign for High School Equity found:
- The use of super-subgroups masks individual subgroup performance. (This has been a constant, and I would argue valid, concern for many education advocates.)
- Annual Measurable Objectives, or AMOs, which indicate that a school or district has made progress toward student-proficiency targets, are no longer required in state accountability systems to identify schools in need of improvement or trigger interventions in those schools. (There is, indeed, often a large disconnect between AMOs and required interventions, according to my review of the waiver plans.)
- States have generally lowered the required size of subgroups for reporting purposes, but this is an "empty gesture" when states also remove individual subgroup accountability. (Duncan argues this is a very significant, important move—and certainly not an empty gesture. Indeed, some states, like California, had an "n size" of 50 or 100 under NCLB—which meant schools weren't held accountable for results of at-risk subgroups if their enrollment was smaller than that. The loophole doesn't exist to nearly that extent under waivers.)
- Significantly fewer schools are identified for support or improvement under waiver plans than under NCLB. (In many ways, this was one of the goals of the waivers. Under NCLB as written, more and more schools were failing to make progress as the 2013-14 goal of 100 percent proficiency approached. Many argue the waivers allow states to focus on the schools that truly need help.)
The Campaign for High School Equity's members include the Alliance for Excellent Education, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Council of La Raza, and National Urban League.
Duncan, in an interview after today's speech, maintained that one of the hallmark achievements of his waiver program is that accountability systems around the country now include far more at-risk students than before (because of the "n size" factor going away).
In fact, he said he was "more confident" that his waiver program, versus the NCLB law as written, is helping protect the civil rights of at-risk students.