Margaret Spellings's November 18th announcement of an NCLB "growth model" pilot project capped a busy year of new-found flexibility for the Secretary and her policy minions. Since her confirmation, the Department of Education has made a number of adjustments to the No Child Left Behind Act. They can be grouped into three categories: those that seek to correct fundamental flaws with the law, those that attempt to use the carrot of flexibility to coerce states into stronger cooperation, and those that represent pure political payback.

April's decision to exempt a greater proportion of special ed students from regular testing, as well as the new "growth-model pilot," surely fit into the first category. Nobody thinks kids with significant cognitive disabilities should be expected to reach the same standards as everybody else; it's hard if not impossible to find anyone in the Administration or on Capitol Hill who claims credit for the idea of including special education students as an NCLB subgroup in the first place. Once it was embedded in the law, however, special ed advocates seized on its potential, making it impossible to remove. Spellings - and Secretary Paige before her - have been carefully walking federal policy back from this brink since the Act's ink was dry.

The need for some sort of growth or value-added achievement gauge within the NCLB accountability apparatus has also been clear since day one. Virtually everyone - from the American Federation of Teachers to the National Association of Public Charter Schools - agrees that it's unfair to penalize schools that help their students make incredible progress (like two years of gains in just 10 months) but still don't reach the "proficient" bar because the kids were so far behind when they started. That's why many charter schools (and traditional middle schools) find themselves on the "needs improvement" list. At the same time, proponents of the law, like the Education Trust and the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights (CCCR), rightfully worry that a simple growth model that merely demands a year of gain for every year in school won't push the nation to close our shameful achievement gaps or get all kids to proficient before the next millennium. Spellings threaded this needle by stating that she will only approve state accountability systems that aim to reach universal proficiency by 2014 - which in practice means that low-performing schools and low-performing students will have to show dramatic gains between now and then. (We'll leave for another day the vexed question of whether universal proficiency nine years hence is itself a realizable goal. Nobody doubts that it's a worthy one.)

This autumn's decisions to extend the "highly qualified teachers" (HQT) deadline and to allow four Virginia districts to offer students tutoring before offering them public school choice fit into the second category. In both of these policy domains, the department faced a dilemma: states and districts were implementing the letter but not the spirit of the law. States created definitions of "highly qualified teachers" that were a joke, yet arguably legal, while districts alerted parents to their choice options by sending jargon-filled letters but nothing else. The federal government doesn't handle such gray areas well.  Spellings's solution was to offer new flexibility - an extra year to meet the HQT requirements, the right to flip-flop choice and supplemental services - in return for better performance, such as sending effective teachers to needy schools and aggressively reaching out to parents. 

Unfortunately, all of these reasonable approaches are clouded by decisions that can only be described as political. Her approval of Florida's plan to exclude the performance of subgroups - such as African-Americans - from many schools' adequate yearly progress determination (see here) is the most egregious state-specific example that's come to light. Her change of heart on failing districts being eligible to be tutoring providers can best be viewed as a reward to the Council of Great City Schools in recognition of its pro-NCLB stance. And this summer's handling of state requests for additional flexibility utterly lacked transparency, creating a sense of distrust and favoritism.

This might explain why advocates for NCLB, including Ed Trust and CCCR, cast a skeptical gaze upon each announcement of flexibility. Spellings & Co. have an opportunity to demonstrate over the next several months that they understand that the process of policymaking - especially its transparency and openness - can be as important as the policies themselves, and that getting both right is what truly makes for good politics.

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