Obama’s coming "flexibility" debacle

An announcement on education waivers is anticipated this
week. Don't expect the reaction to be positive, for it appears that the
President and his education secretary will renege on their promise of "flexibility" for the states.

This would be a big change in a short period. Through most
of 2011, the Obama Administration reaped accolades for its intention to allow
states to take a new course vis-à-vis the Elementary and Secondary Education
act (a.k.a. NCLB). In September, the President got wall-to-wall
coverage the official
announcement
of his plan to offer waivers to the states to give them "more
flexibility to meet high standards."

Keep in mind, the change we're
making is not lowering standards; we're saying we're going to give you more
flexibility to meet high standards. We're going to let states, schools
and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they
need to compete for the jobs of the future. Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee—but every
student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what
state they live in.
It appears that the
President and his education secretary will renege on their promise of flexibility for the states.

Set aside the debate
about the conditions he attached to those standards. Set aside the small matter
of Constitutionality and separation of powers. On the issue of flexibility
itself, virtually everyone seemed to be in agreement (at
least in theory
): The 10-year-old law is broken and it's time to fix it. In
particular, Adequate Yearly Progress needs to go the way of the dinosaurs and
be replaced by something very different. Even on Capitol Hill, for all the
misgivings about Duncan’s
unilateralism, there was broad
consensus
that states should be given much greater leeway to design
next-generation accountability systems. (Leeway that both Republican and
Democratic governors asked for in an NGA
policy statement
released last week.)

The idea of flexibility is so popular, in fact, that the
President reiterated it in his State
of the Union address
:

Let’s offer schools a deal. Give
them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.
And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion;
to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping
kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making.

So far so good. It certainly appeared from the rhetoric that
the Administration would make every effort to approve reasonable proposals from
states, including the 11 that applied
in November for the first round of waivers (the round for which results are now
imminent). The era of "Washington
knows best" in education would come to an end.

But no. Thanks to excellent
reporting
by Associated Press correspondent Christine Armario, we now have
access to letters
the U.S. Department of Education sent to these states in December. Which
document that federal micromanagement is still the order of the day.

Consider the missive
sent to Massachusetts—the first-place finisher in the Race to the Top, the
state with the highest achievement in the land, the one that has seen dramatic
gains across all subgroups of students, a strong supporter (for better or
worse) of the Common Core standards. One might assume that the Bay
State
would be given the benefit of the doubt. But no. Here’s an excerpt from the
Department’s response to the Massachusetts
waiver request:

Please address concerns identified by peers regarding
subgroup accountability, including:


  • Without sufficient safeguards to ensure
    attention and action when an individual subgroup is struggling over a number of
    years, the use of the "high needs" combined subgroup could lead to
    individual subgroups not meeting their goals even when the "high
    needs" combined subgroup is moving forward, and therefore undermine the
    goal of improved achievement for all students.
  • Massachusetts's
    current n-size for subgroups is too high and should be reduced.

  • Schools with high English Learner populations
    may not be receiving appropriate, targeted interventions.

And another:


  • Please address concern that without
    differentiating schools within Level 2, there are insufficient incentives to
    improve achievement for all groups of students. In particular, please address
    the concern that annual measureable objectives (AMOs) are not used along with
    other measures to provide incentives and supports to other Title I schools that
    are not making progress in improving student achievement and narrowing
    achievement gaps.

(That’s just the tip of the iceberg; read the whole thing yourself.)

All of these issues can be debated ad nauseam by policy wonks. For
example, when creating an A to F rating system, what should qualify a school
for an A? Strong achievement? Strong growth over time? If the school misses an
achievement or growth target for one subgroup (say, special education kids)
should that disqualify it for an A? What if all subgroups are doing well but
there’s still a big achievement gap?

Whatever your view on these arcane matters, the real issue at stake is
whether the feds, or the states, should make such calls. How can the President
promise a state like Massachusetts
"flexibility to meet high standards" and then second-guess its attempt to
rationalize its accountability system?

How this is going to end: 4
predictions

So how will this go down?

  • The
    Department of Education will announce that most of the 11 states that applied
    were approved for flexibility. At first, this will lead to a Kumbaya moment.
  • Upon closer inspection, observers will notice that the amount of flexibility granted
    on accountability is tiny. Approved plans will amount to minor changes away
    from the AYP system we’ve got today.
  • The number of states planning to apply for waivers by February 21 will drop
    precipitously, as they realize that it's just not worth the effort.
  • All of this will embolden members of Congress to talk (again) about the urgency of
    fixing No Child Left Behind for real (though nothing will come of it this
    year).

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