It is Labor Day, the last day of summer, and my goal today is to cause you to worry about your state’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver, and begin learning how NCLB waivers work. If you’d like, you can put off reading this post until tomorrow, but I urge you to note the overall importance of its subject and tag it for a read very soon. This is not a joke.
The reasons you are unlikely to be particularly engaged in learning about your state’s NCLB waiver are several. These are arcane arrangements between state departments of education and a U.S. regulatory agency. They are part of what we might call the regulatory weeds. And also they are what we might call “back-loaded.” The two-year waiver renewal applications states must submit during a six-week period between next January 2 and February 21 are for the 2015 and 2016 school years, after the current waivers expire at the end of 2014. And the waivers, if granted, won’t apply until 2015. Your Labor Day barbecue or even learning more about Syria may strike you as more immediately important today.
On one level, I agree. That’s probably why I missed Michele McNeil’s detailed and alarming Politics K-12 blog post at Education Week on Thursday about this topic, until it was brought to my attention this morning by Diane Ravitch, when she warned: Duncan Tightens Federal Grip on Nation’s Public Schools. McNeill reports that states will have to declare their commitment to Common Core Standards and the accompanying standardized tests (a topic around which there is considerable ongoing discussion and controversy), beef up teacher evaluation systems that are tied to students’ test scores, impose “evidence-based” staff development (which has usually meant hiring consultants), commit to intervening in schools that struggle by establishing “annual measurable objectives,” and intervene in low-performing priority schools (which has until now meant closing and privatizing struggling schools in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities).
Federal overreach is a serious problem. Because Congress has been unable to agree on a reauthorization of NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education is prescribing policies that deeply affect schools and neighborhoods and communities and teachers and children through the way it enforces federal rules—without any oversight by Congress. This means there is no public debate about what all this will mean. I must declare my absolute agreement with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s concerns: “He still has states over a barrel, so he’s claiming even more detailed control over everything from when and how they evaluate their teachers to which schools they identify as low-performing, and he’s forcing them to complete what looks like hundreds of extra pages of paperwork.” I never thought I would emphatically agree with Lamar Alexander, but today I do. I think this abrogation of democracy is dangerous.
But my concerns are not merely about the federal overreach; I am also worried about rules Arne Duncan is imposing on our schools, their teachers, and our children.
First, they all involve extensive standardized testing and then punishing schools and teachers who struggle quickly to raise scores. There are decades of evidence that standardized test scores are primarily a wealth indicator, and we can see that the schools to be punished or closed are located in the neighborhoods of our big cities where extreme poverty is concentrated. We are all watching these same policies play out today in Detroit and Chicago and Philadelphia and Highland Park and Muskegon Heights and Inkster and Buena Vista and Chester Upland. We ought to be deeply concerned that the U.S. Department of Education is planning to double down on test-and-punish when our most urgent priority ought to be supporting and improving the schools in desperately poor communities.
Second, I worry about the lack of transparency. I would like for Congress to be involved in the design of federal policy in public education. My sense is that if Congress were involved, perhaps we might have different conditions for the waivers. After all, an Excellence and Equity Commission, established at the request of Representative Mike Honda and Representative Chaka Fattah, recommended that the federal Department of Education make state school funding equity a primary condition for states to qualify for federal programs. Instead of forcing states to evaluate teachers based on students’ standardized test scores, the Excellence and Equity Commission suggested that the federal government create incentives for state legislatures to create school funding plans that would drive dollars to the poorest schools where the test scores lag.
My third worry is that i think the Secretary of Education is selling these policies in an Orwellian frame that makes us all think he is for expanding access and opportunity as a civil right. In a piece that appeared last week in the Washington Post, Arne Duncan declared: “The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom—with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career. Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities…” I absolutely agree with Secretary Duncan’s vision here. But these nice words have nothing whatever to do with the policies he has established for NCLB waiver extensions that will be granted to the states who agree to double down on test-and-punish.
In the Washington Post piece, Duncan continues with rhetoric designed to frighten: “Let’s not kid ourselves that things are fine,” he writes. “Three-quarters of our young people are deemed unfit for military service, in part because of gaps in their education. This is no time to sit back.” Where did Duncan get that statistic? The Secretary of Education tries to frighten us into believing that our public education system is in collapse as a ruse to sell us what is really alarming: his plan for NCLB waivers. The statistic about young people unable to qualify for military service because of a failing education system cannot possibly be accurate at a time when the college matriculation rate continues steadily to rise and when scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s report card, have risen slowly but steadily for the past fifty years.
We have a crisis in the public schools in the poor and isolated communities of color in our big cities. It is a very serious crisis of racism compounded by economic injustice. It must addressed. But the new rules for states to qualify for NCLB waivers merely double down on the policies that have resulted in closure of the public schools in these very neighborhoods.