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Is the Education Department Nitpicking States Over NCLB Waivers?

There are some alarming revelations in the new No Child Left Behind Act waiver reports issued earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Education.

At least three states—Idaho, Mississippi, and New York—aren't faithfully implementing the turnaround principles in their lowest-performing priority schools, for example. And Delaware isn't ensuring that its focus schools actually implement interventions for struggling subgroups of students.

But then there are some not-so-alarming revelations in those reports. 

For example, New York failed to put out a press release announcing its reward schools—as it had promised to do in its waiver application. Instead, it published the list on its website.  

For that transgression, the state earned a "not meeting expectations" for its reward schools.

Perhaps more significant, Idaho, which does have some big problems with how it's intervening in its lowest-performing schools, did not put NAEP and high-quality teacher data on its school report cards. It is also not meeting expectations in that area. 

Don't get me wrong, Politics K-12 is all about transparency. It's good to know that New York did not do a press release as it had promised. And it's good to be informed that Idaho isn't putting all of the necessary data on its report cards. 

But this raises an important question, one that the Education Trust's Daria Hall put this way to me: "There needs to be a serious question about is the department focusing on the right high-leverage things, or checking boxes on compliance? It doesn't help anyone if the feds aren't thinking about high-impact areas."

Under Race to the Top, Education Department officials began to stress how they wanted to take a different view of their oversight responsibilities—that they weren't all about checking boxes on a compliance list but giving states a lot of room to maneuver as they work toward their goals. This is why the department has been flexible in allowing some significant amendments to Race to the Top plans. Department officials over the last few years have emphasized that they want to work with states, and not dictate to them.

So, it will be interesting to watch the NCLB waiver monitoring process. Just how much wiggle room will federal officials allow? And if states keep getting dinged over things like posting something on a website versus issuing a press release, will their patience run thin?

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