What Did Arne Duncan Just Do to Washington State?

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education revoked Washington state’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. What does this mean and does it matter?

In 2011, just before he created waivers from the most onerous consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed NCLB in one short piece of Congressional testimony: “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.”  The National Research Council agrees:  “Test-based incentive programs… have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.” It is now a truth universally acknowledged that NCLB didn’t get our schools to the goals we were holding them accountable for.

The law is still with us, however, because Congress cannot agree even on how to talk about a long-overdue reauthorization, and Arne Duncan’s waivers are merely a flimsy patch on a very bad problem.  More important, the law’s philosophy is very much still with us because mandatory standardized tests, standards-based curriculum, punishments for schools whose students are low-scoring, and incorporation of students’ test scores in the evaluation of teachers are embedded into the requirements set by Duncan’s Department of Education for states to apply for a waiver. The education policies of President Barack Obama’s administration closely resemble the policies of President George W. Bush’s administration.  Applying for Duncan’s waivers (along with other competitive programs like Race to the Top) has forced states to embed federal test-and-punish accountability into state by state legislation, synchronizing federal and state laws to impose test-based accountability for schools.

To think a little more deeply about the meaning of our society’s infatuation with test-and-punish accountability, it is fascinating to go back to some of the reams of criticism in the ten years between the time President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January of 2002 and the development of the waivers the Department of Education began offering states who agreed to Arne Duncan’s conditions in 2012.

Gary Orfield, Gail Sunderman, and James Kim of the Civil Rights Project published a book-length critique, NCLB Meets School Realities, in 2005, three years into the operation of NCLB.   Here is a selected summary of conclusions from the book’s introduction:

“Underlying NCLB is the assumption that schools by themselves can achieve dramatic, totally unprecedented levels of educational achievement for all racial and ethnic groups as well as for children with disabilities, low-income children, and children who lack English fluency—all in a short space of time and without changing any of the other inequalities in their lives.  Substantial yearly gains must be made for each of these groups in every individual school to meet the requirements of NCLB…”

“Though it was still providing less than a tenth of the resources, the federal government was no longer a modest partner in educational systems dominated by state and local agencies….  Supporters defined the law’s requirements as accountability, not control of education, but accountability for specific educational outcomes with very high stakes attached….  Local educators have no control over the standards or requirements, which are decided by the state officials.  In a predominantly suburban society where the cities often have rapidly declining influence, the school districts with the highest concentration of minority and low-income students may have virtually no voice in setting these standards….”

“Money has been a problem…. First, the very substantial increases in federal funding, which the Democrats had thought were part of the bargain to enact the law, did not materialize…. Second, the schools received less funding from state and local governments than they had expected.  Third, there were major costs involved in complying with the law’s requirements; and fourth, the law set aside 20% of the funds, not for use by the schools, but for transfer programs and the purchase of private tutoring services by parents…”

“Teachers and their organizations, and people who do research on teachers, were not actively involved in the writing of NCLB and often seem to be the target of the Act… NCLB treats educational improvement as a regulatory rather than an educational and professional problem.  This implies that high-poverty schools have less-qualified teachers because they have not done enough to attract better teachers or the teachers are not working hard enough.  It also implies that the solution to improving teacher quality is to force schools to hire better teachers and get rid of the less-qualified ones.” (pp. xxvii-xxxiii)

Prophetic words.

In 2012, the Obama administration acknowledged the failure of NCLB’s accountability scheme by offering the states waivers from the law’s overly punitive consequences.  NCLB had required that the states develop a timetable of ever rising annual test scores by which all American children would be proficient by 2014.  Public schools unable to make Adequate Yearly Progress by bringing all children to higher benchmark scores every year were to be declared “failing,” and by 2012 it was known that by the 2014 deadline, the vast majority of America’s public schools would be categorized as “failing.” The law had established accountability for schools that could not make children universally above average, but nobody had figured out what to do when  all schools inevitably fell behind.

NCLB waivers stopped the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks and time line.  Schools would cease to be declared “failing” if their students’ scores failed to rise every year until all children demonstrated proficiency.  Waivers actually helped in one other important way: NCLB had also required that districts with “failing” schools set aside 20 percent of their Title I money to pay for families to get private tutoring or to transport their children to more successful schools.  Waivers allowed school districts to use that money for school improvement and eliminated the private tutoring and school transfer provision.

Forty-two states applied for and received waivers, according to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post,  along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and eight school districts in California that fought for the right to apply on their own.  But last Thursday, Arne Duncan revoked Washington state’s waiver.  Why?

The waivers softened the consequences but didn’t get rid of the testing and data collection. One of the requirements set by the Obama administration for qualifying for  a NCLB waiver was that states had to promise to incorporate students’ test scores on the state tests required by NCLB into teacher evaluations.  Alyson Klein, writing for Education Week, reports that the legislature in the state of Washington couldn’t agree to count only the NCLB-required state test for teacher evaluation.  Instead Washington’s legislature said “districts can choose either state or local assessments.”

What will the loss of the waiver mean for Washington state?  John Higgins, writing for the Seattle Times, presents the local point of view:  “This fall, state education chief Randy Dorn will again ask the Legislature for dramatically increased funding to comply with the Supreme Court’s school-funding decision.  At the same time, most of the state’s parents will be receiving letters explaining that their children attend schools in failing districts… Districts will lose control over how they spend part of their share of about $40 million in federal funding…. Under the waiver, state school districts have been able to tap those funds to provide preschool, full-day kindergarten, teacher training and extra help from certified teachers after school and during the summer.  Now… districts with struggling schools will have to set aside 20 percent of their share to pay for individual tutoring from private vendors outside the district or to cover busing costs for children who want to transfer from a failing school to a non-failing school.  For schools in Seattle, that amounts to about $1.6 million that will have to be set aside for next year.”

None of this would appear to be helpful to schools or children in Washington state.  But no matter.  We seem to be a society programmed these days to swallow plans for accountability.  Set some rules, set some benchmarks we can measure, get a lot of data, and voila, we’ve got accountability.  Whether our system actually accomplishes the goals it was set up to support — whether the rules accomplish anything useful at all — are, of course,  very different questions that we rarely discuss these days.   Nobody seems to be accountable for the morass of accountability into which we have sunk.

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