Ten states let off the No Child Left Behind hook

U.S. President Barack Obama announced today that he is letting 10 states off the hook for meeting requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law, passed in 2001 with bipartisan support under President George W. Bush, called for all students to reach proficiency in English and math by 2014, a goal that educators and others have said is both impossible to reach and deeply flawed.

Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee all applied for waivers. (The hyperlinks go to waiver applications, courtesy of the Center on Education Policy.) New Mexico applied but was denied, though the Obama administration says it is working with the state to improve its application.

In an interview this morning on NPR’s “Here and Now” show in Boston, I spoke with host Robin Young about what Obama has asked of states in exchange for the waivers. In brief, the states agreed to adopt more rigorous academic standards (all of the states except for Minnesota have already formally adopted the Common Core State Standards for both English and math, which are new sets of standards pegged to college readiness).

They were also supposed to revamp accountability systems to focus on individual student progress, and to overhaul teacher and principal development and evaluation. No Child Left Behind, in contrast, rated schools based on whether students met certain benchmarks on state tests. The focus on proficiency, critics said, led schools to concentrate on so-called  “bubble students,” those whose performance was near the proficiency cutoff, to the exclusion of the highest- and lowest-performing students.

While most people in the education world think No Child Left Behind is problematic, the waivers have not been universally embraced.

The Obama administration says the waivers reduce federal influence on state education policy, something conservative critics have complained about in the wake of the administration’s various reform initiatives, including the Race to the Top competition. “Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how best to meet the individual needs of students,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a press release today.

When the administration announced last August that it would grant waivers, some civil rights advocates expressed concern that the waivers might lessen pressure to renew NCLB (which is long overdue for re-authorization) and reduce the attention on minorities and other disadvantaged groups. They have been reassured by the waiver requirements, however.

But others see the waivers as more federal meddling on par with the Race to the Top competition, and argue that the Department of Education is once again attaching federal money to guidelines that align with Obama’s education-reform ideas.

In a related development, Education Week reported today that the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce committee, John Kline (R-Minn.), introduced a pair of bills to replace NCLB. The bills have rather different priorities than the waivers; as reporter Alyson Klein put it, “the federal role in K-12 education would be almost entirely eviscerated.”

Nearly 30 more states are expected to apply for NCLB waivers in a new round that will start this month.

We’ll continue to update this post with more coverage and links throughout the day.

UPDATE: The president just spoke about the waivers at the White House, and reiterated Duncan’s argument that the waivers will reduce federal influence on state education policy. He said the waivers would alleviate pressure on schools to “teach to the test” and on states to lower standards. “We’ve combined greater freedom with greater accountability,” he said. “Each of these states has set higher benchmarks.”

Here is more coverage from around the web:

Education Week with reactions.

USA Today on the politics.

The Christian Science Monitor on how NCLB has lost its “bite.”

MinnPost.com on the “end run” around Congress.

POSTED BY ON February 9, 2012