NCLB Waiver Hearing Comes with Surprises

Six years after it expired, the No Child Left Behind Act is still making waves. The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on Thursday to the effect that the Administration's practice of issuing waivers to states, exempting them from provisions of the law, is allowing the bottom groups of students to fall behind again. Joy Resmovits, writing in the Huffington Post, finds that among those protesting these waivers is the Education Trust, a previously staunch supporter of the Obama Administration's education policies.

The Education Trust's president, Kati Haycock, originally supported the decision to allow states to craft waiver proposals. There was a widespread view that the NCLB law had imposed heavy regulatory burdens on the states, and that it had resulted in too great an emphasis on standardized testing. But as the waivers were approved, until now 30 states are exempted, Haycock changed her mind.

Haycock worked for the Obama administration reviewing states' waivers. She contends that the process was too lax on states. "This is very definitely a step backward from the civil rights commitment embedded in" No Child Left Behind, Haycock said in her prepared remarks.

Haycock's chief criticism of the waivers is that many states have been permitted not just to ignore the most difficult of the law's provisions, but also its basic intention. NCLB's purpose was to force states to report the progress of their lowest-achieving groups, not just their highest or average. Schools were judged by how well they did with their poorest students, whether the low achievement came from poverty, not speaking English as a first language, or learning disabilities. Some states proposed waiver agreements that still report scores from these groups honestly, but many waivers instead allow states to fudge the data.

Where the NCLB had provisions for failing and even closing schools, the softer regulations proposed by state waivers usually impose more planning, not real action.

Even under the states' accountability systems, which focus on 15 percent of the lowest-performing schools, there is sometimes no plan for improvement. "Many state plans don't spell out a clear course of action for priority schools that, even after receiving resources and support, prove unwilling or unable to improve," Haycock said. "In Maryland and Georgia, for example, not meeting priority exit criteria only brings more improvement planning."

Additionally, the NCLB law stated that students must be given the option of transferring out of schools that failed by its standards. The waivers, says Haycock, mostly leave out this provision. She stressed that although school choice is a controversial subject, helping the lowest students in the lowest schools should not be controversial. "It is hard to conclude that this decision shouldn't be revisited," she said.

Haycock was just one of those who testified at the hearing. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, led off the testimony. In the second panel, Kentucky's head of schools, Terry Holliday, reported that his state's schools had seen a bumpy transition to the Common Core standards. John King, the chief of New York's schools, asked for the NCLB law to be reauthorized. Andrew Smarick urged the Senate to put off reauthorization and conduct more research.

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