Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Waive to the Top (Yes, That's the Best DC Can Do.)

So here we are in August 2011. It's been half a year since the Republican-led Education & Workforce Committee took their seats on Capitol Hill, nineteen months since the Obama Administration's A Blueprint for Reform hit the presses, and nine years and seven months since the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was last reauthorized by Congress.

Nine years and seven months and counting. That means we're about to enter the fifth school year that an ESEA reauthorization has been woefully overdue. Yet, as we've stumbled past watermarks and sign posts with No Child Left Behind's bad policies still hanging over us, Washington lawmakers – Democratic and Republican alike – have made no serious attempts to redesign and reauthorize this critical legislation.

Waiving Away Failed Policies
However, with the Department of Education moving to issue compliance waivers, we have at least an attempt to address the nightmarish effects of NCLB. Just how serious or effective this action will be remains to be seen.

Monty Neill of Fair Test argues in today's Washington Post that these waivers could compel states to exchange one basket of failed policies for another, with the same punitive approach that has proved disastrous over the past nine years. Fair Test's Neill suspects that the Obama Administration will use the NCLB waivers as an incentives for getting states to implement Race to the Top (RttT) style reforms.

Here We Go Again...
As we've seen it played out in two nationwide installments, the RttT approach uses students' standardized test scores to make critical staffing decisions. In other words, rather than directly punishing students for their poor performance on bogus tests, the Administration's best idea was to simply redirect the punishment toward teachers and school communities. It's spelled out pretty clearly in the four turnaround models featured in A Blueprint for Reform.

School closures and comprehensive staff shake-ups are disruptive. They are expensive, sloppy, and (worst of all) they hurt students. If Monty Neill is right – and there's no reason to think that anything innovative and truly community-powered will come out of the Department of Education – this NCLB waiver program will prove just as half-baked as policies it's attempting to fix.

Boycott the Tests?
Neill suggest that we can solve this problem by embracing other forms of school and teacher accountability while simultaneously boycotting test-and-punish regimes across the country. Launching such a national movement seems daunting, but it could be the only reasonable course of action given Washington's unresponsiveness and the increasing severity of the problem. If there's enough energy and coordination, this simple strategy could work in the Administration sticks to the test-and-punish approach in transitioning away from NCLB.

So, let Arne Duncan issue his waivers. Let him dismantle NCLB, but also keep him from putting the same punitive policies in its place.

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