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June 08, 2011
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The feds may need to check their definition of "flexibility"
Photo by Greeblie.
this writing, the Administration’s announcement on education waivers is just
hours away. The White House is gearing up for a Kumbaya moment, as state officials
gleefully accept the leeway bestowed upon them by President Obama. But as the
news settles in over the next few days, don’t expect the reactions to be entirely
positive, for it appears that the President and his education secretary have
reneged on their promise of true “flexibility” for the states. Mostly what they
seem to have done is substitute one set of rigid prescriptions for another.
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
of the official announcement of his plan to offer waivers to the states
to give them “more flexibility to meet high standards.”
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, as did a broader set of
state groups this week.)
idea of flexibility is so popular, in fact, that the President reiterated it in
his State of the Union address:
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.
no. Thanks to excellent reporting by Associated Press correspondent Christine
Armario, we recently gained 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.
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
would be given the benefit of the doubt. But no. Here’s an excerpt from the
Department’s response to the Massachusetts
Please address concerns identified by peers regarding
subgroup accountability, including:
just the tip of the iceberg; read the whole thing yourself.)
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?
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
“flexibility to meet high standards” and then second-guess its attempt to
rationalize its accountability system?
How this is going to end: 3
will this go down?
In other words, don’t expect “Kumbaya” to last very long.