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NCLB Waivers get a Reality Check

The trajectory of our nation's schools from the train wreck of No Child Left Behind to a new and fresh set of calamitous policies has been checked by the ways in which these so-called reforms are playing out across the country.

First, what is happening with student achievement? The latest results are in from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and they reveal that in spite of a decade of No Child Left Behind, growth in student achievement remains essentially flat. Lisa Guisbond of FairTest wrote here:

Overall, growth was more rapid before and flattened after NCLB took effect. For example, 4th grade math scores jumped 11 points from 224 to 235 between 1996 and 2003, but increased only 3 points between 2005 and 2011. Grade 8 math scores went from 273 to 278 between 2000 and 2003, but increased only 1 point, from 283 to 284, between 2009 and 2011.
Reading scores have not improved in the post-NCLB era. They remained at 221 in 4th grade from 2007 to 2011. In 8th grade there was a meager 2-point increase, from 263 and 265, in that same period.
As has been widely reported, black-white achievement gaps remain large, at 25 points, and have not budged, despite the hope that NCLB's bright light would expose these gaps and motivate targeted, successful responses to close them. In fact, gaps have remained mostly stagnant for most groups of students at both grade levels in both subjects. Thus, NCLB has failed to produce independent test score gains overall or for low-scoring groups
.

Remember that this law set itself the goal of making every child in the nation proficient by 2014, and eliminating the achievement gap between ethnic groups. So NCLB, perhaps the least popular law ever to blight our schools, has been a dramatic failure by its own chosen indicators.

Secretary Duncan has been using the very disaster this law has become to coerce states into applying for waivers. Since Congress has not changed the law, it continues its cruel machinations on autopilot, and soon will label more than three fourths of the schools in the nation as failures. So Secretary Duncan has offered states the next generation of sure-fire reforms cooked up by his hothouse experts. These reforms have been the core to Race to the Top, so fortunately we have had a chance to see them in practice.

Forty states have indicated they intend to apply for NCLB waivers, and 14 of them have indicated they will meet the first possible deadline, applying by Nov. 14. More than a dozen states, however, are hesitating before making this leap of faith. And these include California, the most populous state in the nation. As far as I am concerned, this is very good news, because it means people are beginning to take a critical look at what they must do in order to be granted what Secretary Duncan is attempting to paint as "flexibility."

Secretary Duncan has suggested that the NCLB waivers will fix the problems with No Child Left Behind. Gone will be the automatic labeling of most schools as failures because they did not meet unattainable goals. Instead we will only label the bottom 15% of our schools. But the waivers create a whole new set of inflexible requirements, micromanaging from the federal level how principals must evaluate teachers, and requiring states to adopt new national Common Core standards.

To get a waiver, a state must comply with several key conditions. They must put in place teacher and principal evaluation systems that include student test scores. They also must create new standards for college and career readiness, and embrace the new national Common Core Standards. Tennessee has been an early leader in the teacher evaluation arena, and received half a billion dollars in Race to the Top money to buy the most advanced value-added teacher evaluation system in the nation. A report by Michael Winerip in this week's New York Times reports that principals and teachers are finding the new system cumbersome and arbitrary. Teachers of subjects or grade levels not tested are required to choose some other grade level test on which their evaluation will be based. Principals are required to conduct endless observations, and complete reams of paperwork. Educators are speaking up, and demanding a return to common sense.

Those who designed the Tennessee system insist it is based on the latest research, and it was praised by Secretary Duncan. This is the sort of system that the NCLB waivers demand, and many states seem ready to shrug their shoulders and comply. But there is a new spirit of resistance wafting over the land.

In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper that published teachers names and rated their effectiveness according to their test scores, has discovered that, just as many of us have been warning, an tremendous pressure to raise test scores results in poor practices, including cheating. Some in the media are paying attention and raising some red flags.

The Orange County Register, located in perhaps the state of California's most conservative county, reported that fulfilling the requirements of the NCLB waivers would cost the state $3.1 billion. This money would need to be spent on the teacher and principal evaluation system, a new college and career readiness program, and supporting the new Common Core standards. This does not even include the cost of the next generation of tests which the big publishers are working on to go with the Common Core. California's State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has expressed doubts about the wisdom of this expenditure, given the state's precarious fiscal position. Furthermore, Governor Jerry Brown has been one of the most prescient voices speaking out against our obsession with testing, and has shown a willingness to buck the testing mania.

I believe states have a great deal more power than they realize. This reminds me of times as a teacher, when I wanted my students to do something they did not want to do. If a few students grumble but go along, no problem. If my best students stand up and rebel, I may need to rethink my lesson plan. If some of the nation's largest states defy the Department of Education, the team in Washington has got to pay attention. More than ten percent of the nation's students are in California's schools, and Californians pay more than 13% of all federal taxes. Will the Federal government continue to punish our students with a law that has become, in the words of Arne Duncan himself, "a trainwreck"? And if other states are paying attention to what is happening down in Tennessee, and start to tally the real costs associated with the waivers, California may have some more company soon.

What do you think? Will this week's news have an impact on the move towards NCLB waivers? What is the news in your state?

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