Flexibility and NCLB

With dozens of states throwing toddler-style tantrums vis-??-vis NCLB's rules and expectations, the Bush Administration is offering them a "new, common sense approach" to compliance.

But first, the tantrum of the week: Connecticut school chief Betty J. Sternberg has sent Margaret Spellings a three-page letter demanding an apology for comments the Education Secretary made on PBS. The comments concerned Connecticut's planned NCLB lawsuit and included the phrases "soft bigotry of low expectations" and "un-American." (You can read the transcript here.) Sternberg huffs that "Anyone knowledgeable about the track record I and this department have had on relentlessly pursuing higher expectations for all of our students is appalled by your characterization of this department and Connecticut's educators." She also references Rod Paige's comments last year about the NEA-as-terrorist-organization (see here).

Put aside the appalling grammar, which makes one wonder about the "high expectations" stuff. Ms. Sternberg still doth protest too much. Perhaps all this energy might be better spent trying to close Connecticut's large and persistent black-white achievement gaps.

As for the administration's olive branch to governors and chiefs, in a high-visibility meeting with some fifteen of the latter in the solemn air of Mt. Vernon, Spellings last week pledged "additional flexibility" for states that embrace NCLB's principles while making significant efforts "to reform their education systems as a whole." (She expanded on the new approach in the Wall Street Journal; see here.) The accompanying fact sheet asserted that

The Department will consider very carefully the extent to which States demonstrate progress and effective implementation. . . . We intend to reward innovative and effective reformers and to use what we've learned from research, and the field, over the last three years. . . . We are willing to show States a more workable and informed approach on other aspects of the law, such as how students with persistent academic disabilities will be assessment (sic) and included in accountability. Another example of such flexibility could include a request for the use of growth models; or States may have their own proposals for demonstrating progress and effective implementation.

Is this pot half full or half empty?

On the positive side, the suggested quid pro quo - flexible means in return for demonstrated results - is a proven management precept; the bargain that underlies charter schools; and recalls a once-vibrant ESEA reform strategy known as "Straight A's." (See here and here.)

We should also praise the Secretary and her team for being willing to learn from experience instead of stubbornly clinging to NCLB rigidities that may be wholly unworkable and interfere with standards-based reforms that were already succeeding in some states. (Florida comes to mind.)

And yet. While it will naturally take time before we can see how this newfound flexibility plays out, several caveats need to be registered.

First, though the example offered at Mt. Vernon was a new option for testing disabled youngsters - allowing states to use modified assessments for two percent more of them, besides the one percent previously granted - it appears that most of the new flexibility will take the form of plan modifications to be negotiated state by state. In other words, while the Department may bring new decision rules into those negotiations, states have no inherent right to do anything different. They must ask for waivers, exemptions, and modifications, and the feds can say yea or nay or jerk them around for months.

Second, since the President's re-election and Ms. Spellings's ascension, the agency's approach to state deviations and waiver requests has been strikingly uneven. The Department has been tough with Connecticut and, of all places, Texas (for the scoop there, see here). But it's been lax with North Dakota, alternated between stern and accommodating with Utah, and compromised with California. Perhaps such tailoring is warranted, given evidence from several recent studies that states differ greatly in their ardor for, and success in, reforming schools and closing learning gaps. But this approach also invites politics rather than the needs of kids to dominate such decisions (as happened under Goals 2000) and threatens to turn a nationwide reform into a mixed bag of disparate state schemes.

Third, NCLB contains some important core ideas that many states and districts find onerous to implement - or simply don't agree with. Public-school choice and highly-qualified teachers are prime examples. Does the "new flexibility" mean that adult interests and bureaucratic inertia will again trump the needs of children? Recent accommodations with New York City (on choice) and several states (beginning with North Dakota) on teachers are not encouraging. (For more, see "Searching the Attic" from the National Council on Teacher Quality.)

Fourth, while one shouldn't be surprised that this team - which has what psychologists delicately call "control issues" - is doing its utmost to keep all such decisions within the executive branch, most analysts have concluded that NCLB, like every complex and ambitious new federal statute, needs amendment. In other words, the key revisions will have to be legislative, not regulatory or administrative. Though few members of Congress seem interested in tackling this project before 2007 (the "regular" reauthorization cycle), that may be too late if by then the executive branch has, in effect, weakened the law despite ample advice that it begs for strengthening in key areas. (For a lengthy discussion of needed and potentially useful reforms, see the new Koret Task Force volume, Within Our Reach, edited by John Chubb.)

Chiefs and governors are predictably grateful for the promise of NCLB flexibility, but so are school boards and teacher unions. (See, for example, here and here.) If the kids had a Washington lobby, I doubt it would be as pleased. But of course nobody represents them.

Key members of Congress aren't thrilled, either. Messrs. John Boehner and George Miller, chairman and ranking Democrat on the House education committee and major NCLB architects, issued an unusual joint statement a few hours after Secretary Spellings's Mt. Vernon expedition. Though polite, its authors were notably wary of a "smorgasbord of different waivers." In fact, they deserve to be quoted at length:

Today, the Secretary unveiled an approach that, if carried out fairly and without favoritism, could help iron out some of the difficulties in implementing the law. We agree with her that every effort must be made to ensure smooth and effective implementation, but we firmly believe that the effort must be based on the law as it is written, not on a smorgasbord of different waivers for different states and districts. In many respects, what's good for a student in Ohio should also be good for a student in California, or anywhere else in the country.

If the law is implemented with too much variety from state to state, the progress we are making on boosting achievement and improving accountability will be cut short. We cannot allow our students to pay this price. It is imperative that the Department assess flexibility requests evenly, objectively, and fairly. We believe this is achievable under the law and we urge the Secretary to make it a priority.

With too much leeway, opponents of No Child Left Behind will lobby the Secretary to act outside of the bounds of this law. We read her remarks today as a refusal to grant such wide latitude, and we hope our reading is accurate. The law must be implemented fairly and evenly across the states if it is going to continue to succeed and make a difference in children's lives.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

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