School Beat: Secretary of Education Duncan “Waives” His Hands

by Lisa Schiff on September 29, 2011

No matter how much the Department of Education tries to spin the message, the end result is the same – more testing and less focus on really educating kids. Continuing in this vein is the latest big announcement from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the opportunity for states to apply for “waivers” that are supposedly designed to provide “relief from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — or No Child Left Behind (NCLB)…”

Clearly this is a near eleventh-hour attempt to avert an embarrassing bi-partisan disaster embedded in NCLB–its 2014 deadline of universal proficiency to be achieved through universal standardized testing at increased levels. Democrats and Republicans joined forces long ago to pass this historically destructive legislation and their true lack of interest in creating a strong public education system has prevented them from refashioning federal policy in any positive way ever since.

Rightfully frustrated at Congress’ lack of action, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have put into place their own approaches. Unfortunately, their viewpoint is not much different from that of their predecessors. They see the answer to our students’ needs as testing, more testing, privatization and competition, a perspective which explains the new waiver program Duncan recently announced. Instead of acknowledging that the entire legislation is a mess and that everyone should be granted a waiver with new, meaningful requirements, each state will have to go through an expensive application process to determine whether or not it is waiver-worthy.

The opening of the waiver document enumerates many of the federal conditions states and districts have been struggling with. For example, those with waivers could abandon testing for and calculating the dreaded Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) metric and substitute their own measures and goals for indicating achievement of adequate progress by the 2014 deadline. They would no longer have to identify schools serving predominantly educationally disadvantaged students (“Title I” schools) that were not meeting testing benchmarks. States and districts would have the ability to use targeted monies for other authorized purposes (similar to the categorical funding requirements that were relaxed in California several years ago). Inability to meet NCLB’s “Highly Qualified Teacher” target rates could be addressed in more fluid ways.

This list comprises much of what is at the heart of NCLB and much of what is wrong with it. The hyper-focus on testing and subsequent rankings was never a viable means to improve or change education. Given the gaming of the testing system, it barely served one of NCLB’s purported purposes, which was to more clearly expose how disadvantaged students were being poorly served. Unfortunately, these lessons seem to have been lost on Duncan and Obama, because the action-oriented portions of the waiver program are more or less a recapitulation of the flawed Race To The Top (RTTT) contest, complete with a resource-expensive application process and penchant for more tests.

States must enumerate their plans in three key areas in their application for a waiver, all of which have at their core data tracking and growth measures. The first requirement is to demonstrate the presence of “college and career ready” expectations and corresponding assessments for all students, though this is defined sketchily enough to be meaningless. The second requirement is to set testing targets, identify where students are at, and close achievement gaps. The third requirement is to look at teachers and principals through the lens of the growth measures.

This is just the same old thing, pushed back down to the state level. What’s being ignored is that these tests and supposed measurements of growth, as discussed by a growing number of statistically inclined educators, are meaningless. The data collected do not provide evidence for the questions we want to ask. The mountains of numbers we’re gathering are not helping us figure out what our children know and how nimbly and creatively they can think. At the end of the day, the waiver program is just more of the same, as many critics are pointing out.

Some many questions arise from even this brief examination of this latest tactical move by education policy makers. If the NCLB conditions are so problematic, and if Congress is so incapable of passing new legislation, why not just grant universal waivers? Why should states and districts have to prove a level of student stagnation and bureaucratic entanglement that is already known to be pervasive? Is there an efficiency to be gained in making district and state education staff spend money and time generating more reports and more documents, only to have some of them told, “Sorry, things aren’t bad enough for you, proceed according to the old, flawed NCLB model?” The NCLB train is headed for a cliff and the Department of Education is requiring us to ask for permission to jump off. The situation would be ludicrous if only it weren’t endangering the educational health of so many of our children.

And that’s really the important thing to remember in all of this. For all its bluster, NCLB was not about the education of children and neither were its proposed replacements – RTTT and the Administration’s proposed replacement as described in its “Blueprint.” By contrast, what all of these policies are about and what they have in common is a focus on the institutional and economic apparatus that surrounds educational activities.

The Department of Education and Congress have lost sight of a past where they once made a huge difference in expanding educational resources to all children. Today, the goal seems to simply reproduce the need for the bureaucratic infrastructure itself, with new laws and policies coming at election cycle intervals. NCLB gave a rocket boost to an already growing sector of profitable corporations that develop and sell curricula and the testing materials that go along with them. Education sector organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, have flourished in this environment, receiving contracts to provide everything from tutoring to re-structuring of schools and programs. The waiver program will change none of this. In fact, it’s just a slight act of hyperbole to label this now-entrenched mélange of institutions and interests an “education industrial complex.”

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.

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