In the last year, states nationwide have become keenly aware of an upcoming 2014 deadline, at which point No Child Left Behind mandates that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced a policy on Friday that would allow states to seek waivers from that requirement, provided they meet several standards for implementing other reforms.
In his remarks at the White House to advocate for the waiver policy, Obama linked education to the future well-being of the economy and the nation in general. Allowing states to take back greater control of their education systems should work toward that goal, the president said. He referenced America's declining academic status compared to its economic peers; for example, the United States ranks 16th in the world in the number of adults with a college degree.
"It is an undeniable fact that the countries who out-educate us today will outperform us tomorrow," Obama said. "If we're serious about building an economy that last, we've got to get serious about education."
Under his new plan, states can also seek a waiver from the law's system of ever-increasing accountability targets, which results in many schools being labeled as "failing" based on test scores, and flexibility in using federal education funds.
In a briefing with the media, senior administration officials outlined specifically what states must do to be granted a waiver:
States must transition to a set of standards ensuring students are "college- and career-ready." Those standards should be designed to increase achievement among all students, including students with disabilities and English-language learners. States must develop their own accountability systems to monitor students' progress toward that goal of college and career readiness. For schools in the bottom 5 percent in achievement, they must implement serious interventions to improve their performance. In another 10 percent of schools (identified by low graduation rates, large achievement gaps or poor performance among certain subgroups), districts must develop strategies to aid those students. Waiver recipients must set basic guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems. These evaluations should include some element of student progress and offer useful feedback to educators on how they could improve. More than 40 states have already initiated these reform measures to one degree or another, according to one senior official, and the waiver requirements were developed in conjunction with 45 chief state education officers.
"We've got to act now and harness all the good ideas coming out of our states and our schools," Obama said. "We have to figure out what works and hold ourselves to higher standards."
Reaction to the president's proposal was largely positive among education and government groups.
Lee Posey, senior committee director for the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) standing committee on education, tells Governing that her organization views the new flexibility as a positive step. The ultimate hope, though, would be for complete reauthorization of the law, allowing states to be relieved from the law's more unrealistic requirements without going through the waiver process, she says.
"States feel that flexibility is critical because there are differences between the states, differences in the education systems, differences in education governance," Posey says. "State and local governments are providing most of the dollars for education. They're more directly connected. Flexibility is important to allow states to exercise that authority."
At a local level, West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon, vice chair for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' education committee, tells Governing that increased flexibility should lead to a more productive relationship between the federal government, states and local school districts. The Conference had been advocating for relief from the areas that Obama's waiver policy addresses. The organization is "very supportive" of the general plan, Cabaldon says.
Refocusing NCLB doesn't mean doing away with the law's goals altogether, Cabaldon says, but it should facilitate a more productive effort to reach them. "Our accountability programs will not only allow, but demand we focus on the schools where students need the most help, and ensuring every student has access to the very best teachers," he says. "This approach advances that in a thoughtful way. We're committed to the proposition that every student can and ought to be proficient."
Betsy Landers, the National PTA's president, said in a statement that the call for flexibility "will allow administrators to focus on the local and unique needs of our most troubled schools, support parents and families with meaningful accountability and provide students with richer curricula." A need remains, Landers continued, for Congress to complete overhauling the education law, echoing statements by Posey and Cabaldon.
"The pressure is mounting. Flaws in NCLB have our nation's education system on the brink of crisis, and this flexibility package will pull us back from the edge," Landers said.