Schools and Politics: The Waiver Game Dilutes No Child Left Behind?

Summary: Waivers to No Child Left Behind by the Obama Administration in the face of the failure by many schools to fully meet Annual Yearly Progress, and Congressional failure to update the law, nonetheless run the risk of derailing impetus toward school reform.

In his recent column in the Seattle Times 9/12/12, “Still Leaving Our Kids Behind,” Michael Gerson blasts the Obama administration’s decision to grant exemptions to states from certain of the requirements of No Child Left Behind, most pointedly the expectation that all racial, ethnic, and educational groups (such as special education students) be made proficient in the very near future. Mr. Gerson glosses over the indigestible reality, the ultimate ingredient of NCLB, that a high percentage of American schools, as much as 80%, would be deemed failing in the near future and be subject to  unwieldy penalties by their respective states.

As much as I have felt for some time that the structure of No Child Left Behind, promulgated by the George W. Bush White House and passed into law by Congress, tried to impose a directive from on high onto a highly complex web of grass roots realities to which it seemed poorly attuned, and so was doomed by the time line it set for itself, I have since come to respect its blunderbuss aspects, the kick in the rear to schools each fall as the previous year’s test scores were dissected. It was never finely tuned, never particularly mindful of the quandaries faced by well intentioned educational professionals on the ground. In essence, it just commanded, “get it done.”

Fear does motivate, though not in a pleasant manner. And so NCLB did get us going on a stronger trajectory than prior, and I believe in many communities, even if not most communities, clear progress has been wrought. My high school has been a case in point. In some categories, even most, clear progress has been made, and in some categories the goals as stipulated by NCLB formulas have been met.

Mr. Gerson gets overly wound up later in his column and exclaims against an “educational establishment that has adopted a policy of massive resistance to effective accountability,” and indeed it may seem that way from his vantage point well screened from the day to day of work in the trenches, but the work I have seen and experienced has been heavily wrought by awareness of NCLB goals and its mandates.

Just not quickly enough nor broadly enough, with the result that the Obama Administration has bowed to the current reality, made the decision that the penalties due to the majority of schools were simply not appropriate, and allowed states to renegotiate the terms and goals under which they will continue to operate under the NCLB umbrella.

It is in this seam that retrograde elements have flourished, according to Mr. Gerson, and specifically where goals for minority youth are concerned, which gets to the heart of NCLB, because the lagging skills of African American, Latino, and Native American youth were a prime target of the law.

His prime exhibit, allegedly the most egregious example of negative consequences in this rollback of expectations, comes from the great state of Virginia. After complaining briefly that the new expectations were laden with educational gobbledygook (and here he has my sympathies — there are few languages more useless than educationalese), he got to the point.

“Eventually it came out that Virginia was codifying the goal of having 57 percent of African-American students proficient in math, compared to 78 percent of white students.”

And then, in beautifully dry sarcasm: “It is an educational objective so ‘realistic’ that it is difficult to distinguish from racism.” Sure looks like it.

Though Virginia has been forced by ensuing firestorm to rethink its goals, Mr. Gerson acknowledges that particular example was merely the most flagrant of those of which he is aware.

Throughout the renegotiation process Gerson tracks the lowering of expectations in test scores and graduation requirements, obfuscations that hide wavered commitment to the original strict goals, escape from NCLB’s “reconstitution of consistently failing schools,” and what Gerson characterizes as “the broad institutionalization of lowered expectations.”

Absurdities occur, such as one waiver standard that singles out schools for penalties and action if they are among the lowest 15th percent of test scores in each state, which implies that the lower 16th through 20th percent schools and on up the line evade similar scrutiny.

One might ask correctly, how and from where does Mr. Gerson get his information? Who are his sources? Reasonable question, but the concerns he cites are altogether too believable. The Huffington Post references (Joy Resmovits, 7/16/2012) a survey by Whiteboard Advisors that suggests the disenchantment with the waivers is wider and deeper than solely Republican ranks. Allow people to get off the hook, and the wiggle begins.

So the conundrum sits before us in bold outline. No Child Left Behind, without modification, would label an estimated 80% of schools as failing (Arne Duncan’s own estimate), and consequently calls for sanctions (from mandated improvements up to state takeover) on a strong majority of schools across the nation, which would be both politically fraught and operationally impossible.

But alleviate the pressure NCLB has brought to bear, and what but the most elegant of politicians will not opt for a bit easier road?

Where is the middle ground that will reset goals, but reset them in such a way as to retain the urgency and the accountability that NCLB brought to bear?

Congress, called upon to reauthorize NCLB in more realistic terms, has dropped the ball, a distressingly familiar story, so the Obama administration has stepped into the breach, and has effectively recast NCLB via the waiver process.

The devil, as one says, will be in the details. The details Gerson cites lead one to believe that the pendulum, via the waiver process, has swung in a fatal direction in too many states.

I am left with respect for NCLB, grudgingly so, which has kept conscientious educators with their nose to the grindstone, in some ways fairly, in other ways not, but has been a necessary reminder of our obligation to the children we teach, with fear of our jobs in the balance. Ugly and unrefined, perhaps, but an enlightened coercion, nonetheless.

NCLB brought urgency to the table, underlined the current failures of real kids, and quantified our responsibility to rectify the matter in real lives which otherwise would face a foreshortening of prospects. “What is most shocking,” says Gerson of the renegotiation process, “is the utter lack of urgency” that characterizes the resulting metrics. I hope he is wrong in some part. If not, I fear substantial school reform is effectively stopped in its tracks.

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