President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Friday morning rolled out a new program of waivers that would allow states and school districts to sidestep some of the much-criticized mandates of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (the Bush-era version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). But the waiver offer comes with new strings attached—conditions requiring school districts to comply with a new menu of controversial requirements.
Under this waiver policy, a state would no longer have to set targets that require 100 percent of its students to attain proficiency on state standardized tests of math and reading by 2014—a pie-in-the-sky standard that led many states to dumb down their tests in response. Besides the freedom to set more realistic achievement targets, states would gain new leeway to spend federal aid on locally determined corrective actions for low-performing campuses. They would no longer have to follow strict federal prescriptions to use the money to implement a rigid sequence of “school improvement” steps (such as underwriting transfers of students to other campuses).
However, schools at the same time would be expected to meet new requirements, especially in the area of teacher evaluation. States and districts would have to revamp their evaluation systems to meet federal specifications establishing at least three categories of teacher performance, with emphasis on measures of student achievement (meaning, to a significant extent, test scores). These provisions resemble requirements of the federal Race to the Top grant program, which Texas AFT opposed and in which the state of Texas does not participate.
AFT President Randi Weingarten greeted the White House waiver announcement with a carefully measured response. She said:
“No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed. Reauthorization, which is Congress’ responsibility, is the appropriate avenue to do so. We applaud Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) for their efforts to move that process forward, and we share their frustration that reauthorization is long overdue. In the absence of congressional reauthorization, we understand why the Obama administration is taking this action; we are keenly aware of the calls from parents, teachers and administrators for change—sooner rather than later. Waivers are an imperfect answer to the stalemate in Congress and, at best, can provide only a temporary salve….
“We are pleased that the administration’s proposal includes more options prospectively for improving low-performing schools, recognizing that many of the remedies prescribed in NCLB were not flexible enough. The proposal also acknowledges the importance of adopting higher college- and career-ready standards….
“However, after all we’ve learned about how to construct and implement meaningful teacher evaluation and development systems since Race to the Top was announced two years ago, we’re disappointed that the lessons learned are not evident in this package. Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused. Successful school districts in the United States and in the top-performing nations understand that teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it’s a missed opportunity not to follow their lead.”
A related cause for concern, from Texas AFT’s standpoint, is the lack of an assured voice for teachers in the development of the required new systems of teacher evaluation. To be sure, an official fact sheet on the new waiver program says “the state and its districts will develop these systems with input from teachers and principals….” Unfortunately, though, experience with the Race to the Top program has shown that the Department of Education likely will let states meet this guideline with only token employee involvement. This concern is especially acute in a state like Texas, which does not have the infrastructure of collective bargaining that gives employees a mechanism for making their voices heard on significant policy changes that affect conditions for teaching and learning in the classroom.
The NCLB waiver plan also has come under fire from some school administrators and from Republicans in Congress. The administrators are saying that the Education Department should grant the waivers without new strings attached, establishing federal goals but leaving it to the states and local school districts to decide the “how” of school improvement. The Republicans contend that Congress has never granted the Education Department authority to make new policy, without congressional approval, by setting preconditions for the waiver of NCLB requirements.