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NCLB Waivers are not Worthy Reforms in California

A slightly abbreviated version of this post ran as an op-ed column in yesterday's Sacramento Bee.

No Child Left Behind has put the schools of California in a vise. Next year, the vast majority of our schools will be declared "failing" based on our inability to make every child in the state proficient on standardized tests. As of last year, there were already almost 1,300 schools in year five of program improvement, meaning they will need to be radically restructured to satisfy the law. The Department of Education has created a waiver process however, which would allow our schools to continue to receive funding, which some Californians support.

Unfortunately, the new mandates being demanded in exchange for a waiver from NCLB simply trade one set of poor policies for another. In a time when the number of districts at risk of insolvency has tripled, the conditions for waivers will impose new expenses on our schools. And all based on the convenient fiction that tests and accountability can make up for the damage caused by poverty.

We will need to invest billions in a new teacher and principal evaluation system, one which will unwisely tie ratings to student test scores. This will result in even more emphasis on narrow test preparation at the expense of deeper learning. We will need to travel further down the path of adopting national Common Core standards, which Edsource estimates will cost the state $1.6 billion, and lead to a whole new round of tests. And the state will be required to continue to label a significant number of our schools in poverty as failures based on their test scores, and implement harsh reforms from a narrow range of Federally approved options.

Educators and parents have realized what policymakers are just now beginning to discover. Standards and tests alone do not improve our schools. The independent National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that student achievement gains have been virtually nil for the past decade.

There is another way. What if instead of trying to force schools to improve, we built on their strengths? Schools that give teachers time to engage in meaningful collaboration have found sustained improvements. Our students need to be challenged to be creative thinkers, and these skills are stifled by the narrow emphasis on test scores. We should not subject them to more and more tests, with ever higher stakes attached to them.

Scarce funds should be used to provide basic services now being cut across the state. Instead of more reading tests, how about school libraries staffed by skilled librarians? Instead of standards for career and college readiness, how about funds for high school counselors, who are being laid off in droves? Instead of focusing on firing teachers to improve schools, how about focusing on making their schools places where the best teachers want to stay?

No Child Left Behind has been, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "a train wreck."
This law is beyond unwise - it has become unworkable. But rather than trade one wrecked policy for another, California should turn down the waivers and seek a return to the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was to provide resources to correct the gap between rich and poor schools. By rejecting these waivers, California will be leading us towards real reform, and away from the train wreck of NCLB.

What do you think? Will your state be applying for NCLB waivers? Do you think this is wise?

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