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Advancing Accountability: An Explanation of the NCLB Waivers and How Students Are Affected

February 7, 2013 by Kerri L. Briggs

Urgency is a phrase that frequents discussions of education reform: Teach for America talks about an urgent need for transformational change, Bloomberg News highlighted here the urgent need to improve college completion rates, Harvard’s Education School Dean Kathleen McCarthy has weighed in on the issue, along with governors, state advocacy organizations, and the President in his 2009 State of the Union Address. With No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal government ushered in a real sense of urgency – calling on schools to help every student read and do mathematics on grade level by 2014. And, when schools fell short or didn’t make enough progress, there were real consequences. As of today, 35 states have been given waivers to opt out of this approach and set, in too many cases, goals that expect too little, and consequences that are too limited. This lack of urgency today means less future jobs for American students in our global economy. There are still goals to reach every year, however, states no longer prioritize student achievement on grade level. Two paths appear to be emerging, both with associated concerns. Down one path, states are shifting to a more graduated approach and planning for long-term college- and career-readiness. However it’s unclear whether states will choose to sustain the push for all students to reach proficiency. The second is far more concerning, as states appear to be scaling back the pressure for student success and appear to using the flexibility granted under the waiver, to relax goals. To make this point even clearer – Wisconsin will require just one out of every two students to read on grade level by 2017. This is reluctance, not urgency. And, even though there are consequences imposed and action taken when schools don’t reach their goals, these are measured, and limited to far fewer schools. Almost half the states receiving waivers will no longer impose significant consequences when schools miss their goals. Today marks the 11th anniversary of the signing of NCLB. We know that there are new questions to ask and answer as states’ capacity continues to improve and new standards and assessments become available. And we remain committed to studying the impact of these waivers to gain a more thorough understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. As the next phase of accountability begins, the Bush Institute calls for increased global competitiveness and achievement.  We will be working to reconcile the need to evolve with the need to ensure every single student learns. Without such comprehensive accountability, the collective commitment to student achievement inevitably wanes, and the urgent need to improve results is lost. Thus, as our understanding of accountability progresses to take advantage of state expertise, let’s hope we haven’t doomed ourselves and our students, especially minority students who are among the fastest growing group in the US, by low expectations. Let’s not move into a new era of indifference under the guise of ‘flexibility,’ but instead help students get the education they need to move into the new global economy.

This post was written by Kerri Briggs, Director of Education Reform