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Common Standards to Play Pivotal Role in NCLB Waivers?

Unless you've been in the wild without an Internet signal, or on a vacation where you really, um, don't check your SmartPhone, you've heard by now that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given states the formal go-ahead to apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements. As was made clear in a White House press briefing on Monday, this direction comes from President Obama.

Details of what states must do to get the waivers won't emerge until next month, but at the briefing, Duncan listed the elements in the all-or-nothing package of reforms states have to embrace (and you've heard this mantra before): teacher and principal effectiveness, turning around low-performing schools, growth-based accountability systems, and yes, college- and career-ready standards.

Duncan has been careful not to specify that college- and career-ready standards would have to be the new set of common standards that most states have already adopted. In fact, in the administration's blueprint for ESEA renewal, officials included the possibility that states could team up with their higher education systems to certify that their own standards are good enough to signify that students are college- and career-ready.

The waiver plan isn't developed enough yet for us to know whether that higher-ed-blessing arrangement would pass muster. But if it doesn't, or some other kind of similar substitute isn't allowed, that pretty much means that states would have to adopt the common standards spearheaded by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers in order to get a waiver.

From a quick look at our map, it's easy to see that only five states could get tripped up on the common-standards part of the waiver. (But remember, that's only one part of what states will likely have to demonstrate—or promise—to get waivers.)

As the administration talks about waivers that grant states relief from the 2014 deadline of having all students proficient on tests, some people are already sounding alarms about letting up pressure on schools to produce better results. Melody Barnes, the president's chief domestic-policy adviser, said at the Monday briefing that the waivers will not permit any bar-lowering for states. "Accountability will remain one of the bellwethers for our administration," she said.

But we don't know much yet about where the heat for improvement will come from in the Brave New World of Waivers. Many have decried the current, consequences-driven approach to improvement, calling it too punitive. It will be interesting to see what replaces it.

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