NCLB Waivers Could Signal Attempts by Obama to Undermine Law

The recent news that well over half the states in America either have or are awaiting an approval for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act provisions has Motoko Rich of The New York Times wondering if the Obama administration has essentially “nullified” the ten-year-old education law. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Washington State and Wisconsin have both been approved for the NCLB exemptions, with applications from ten more states and the District of Columbia still awaiting a decision.

Since first announcing in 2011 that states will be allowed to apply for waivers, the Obama administration has approved every application except for Iowa’s. Furthermore, those states who have yet to apply to be allowed to miss the 2014 deadline to have all their students at grade level in math and reading have until this September to submit their requests. As part of the process, states wishing to be exempted from NCLB must come up with an alternate plan to make sure that their graduates are ready either for college-level academic work or are prepared to enter the job market.

Rich writes that the waiver process is a way for the Obama administration to maneuver around Congress, which has, amid partisan stalemate, repeatedly tried and failed to reauthorize the law since 2007. Having succeeded with this approach, it is no wonder that the administration also used it to go around the deadlocked legislative body in order to further its policy objectives when it comes to the issue of immigration, as it did when it stayed the deportation orders for some young illegal immigrants earlier this year.

Critics question whether the waivers have done much to genuinely shift the focus of federal education reform, given their continued reliance on standardized tests. The waivers “should probably make the meh list,” said Joshua Starr, superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in Maryland, which was granted a waiver in May.

Mr. Starr said he believed that education reform should focus on incentives to help teachers collaborate and help students learn skills that could not simply be measured by tests.

The conditions of the waivers don’t do much to address the main issue critics have with NCLB: excessive reliance on test scores to evaluate student progress. While some say that test scores don’t make for good performance metrics, others point out that the system creates incentives for schools to cheat, as they did in Atlanta and Washington D.C.

“It is another example to me of how we’re not focused on the right things in the American education conversation today,” Mr. Starr said. “I have a lot of respect for Arne Duncan,” he added, referring to the secretary of education, “but it’s just sort of moving around the chairs on the Titanic.”