Education

New Headaches for ‘No Child Left Behind’

New NCLB waivers may impact the classroom more than the old law they’re trying to escape did.
by | November 2011

Over the past decade, state education officials have felt hemmed in by the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. It looks like they’re in for some relief, but that may bring on a whole new set of problems.

The existing law requires that all children be tested as proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has always been a numerical impossibility, but as the date draws closer, it’s caused more and more schools to be regarded as “failing” under the terms of the 2002 law.

Out West, some state officials have had enough. Denise Juneau, the superintendent of public instruction in Montana, flatly told the federal Education Department this summer that she wasn’t raising the bar any higher when it comes to measuring the performance of individual schools. “We’re not asking for permission,’’ Juneau told a meeting of her peers from rural states. ‘’We’re just telling them we won’t raise our annual objectives this year.’’

Idaho, South Dakota and Utah soon followed suit, and California began to make noises as well. Federal officials warned Juneau she was putting millions of dollars at risk, but she wouldn’t back down. Finally, they found a face-saving way to tweak the measurements. Instead of having 155 additional schools listed as failing, which would have been the case if Juneau had gone along quietly with the normal requirements, just 16 schools were added to the “bad” list.

Juneau says the federal measurement is meaningless, because it threatens to list every school as failing based on different standards and assessments in every state. She also says it was becoming impossible to live under the strictures of the decade-old No Child Left Behind law at the same time the Obama administration is pushing different, sometimes contradictory priorities.

In September, President Obama made it clear that he intends to drive education down a different path. He announced that states can receive waivers from many NCLB requirements -- including 100 percent proficiency -- so long as they follow administration guidelines in areas such as standards and ways of assessing teacher performance.

Rather than offering flexibility under the outdated law, though, Obama’s way might lead to new headaches. Many states have chafed at the current administration’s education policies, which it has pushed through its use of stimulus funds. Its programs may now impact day-to-day instruction in a more intrusive way than the goal-setting NCLB law did.

“NCLB never told districts what they had to teach, how they should teach it or how they should assess it,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. “The new scheme flips the situation. It relaxes the measuring requirements, but it dictates to states their standards, curriculum and assessments.”

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