For embattled educators and students who've toiled for over a decade under the unrealistic expectations of the accountability-driven federal education law No Child Left Behind, relief may be on its way. But it won't come without a price. On Friday President Obama formally announced that he will dispense waivers to states to allow them to escape the sanctions tied to No Child Left Behind if they show they've adopted key measures of his school reform agenda.
States that can prove that they plan to overhaul the bottom five percent of schools; adopt standards in reading and math so students are "college-ready," and agree to tie teacher evaluations to their students' test scores will be eligible for the waivers.
"To help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change," Obama said in a statement released on Thursday.
The move has been called a "re-write" of the federal education law, but education watchers say the waivers, which come just a year before a major deadline attached to the law, are neither unexpected nor that dramatic.
Under No Child Left Behind, every K-12 student in the country is expected to be proficient in math and reading by 2013, a goal that 82 percent of schools will fail to meet next year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said. The specter of the so-called "universal proficiency" provision has trailed educators for over a decade as many schools failed to meet their annual progress goals and faced ever harsher sanctions every year they failed to do so. With the deadline looming and Congress continually failing to take up the long overdue reauthorization of the law, regulatory relief of some sort became necessary.
"They are going to try to get as much bang for their buck for any concession they make around No Child Left Behind," said John Yun, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Yun argues that reauthorization of No Child Left Behind is more a matter of when than if, and because the unpopular universal proficiency provision likely will not be included in the reauthorization, the waivers have little to do with the 2013 deadline.
"The president and Arne Duncan are trying to give flexibility back to the states," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "But in return for flexibility given with the right hand, they're using the left hand to advance a new federal set of reforms which they think are realistic and important."
"They're not always backed by evidence, but now there's a new president, and he has a new set of remedies which he thinks are going to be effective."
Obama also framed the move as a way to give states relief from the onerous and backwards provisions of No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind's flaws are well-documented and its critics abound, and criticizing the law is something that's long been easy to do. Obama did plenty of it on Friday.
"[E]xperience has taught us that, in it's implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them," Obama said on Friday. "Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test. Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out."
Under No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to meet their yearly progress goals, or AYP, face tiered levels of sanctions, ranging from being forced to offer supplemental tutoring to being forced to let students transfer out of the school. Schools that fail to meet AYP for five consecutive years are forced to shut down and face takeover by a state or outside charter school organization.
The combination of No Child Left Behind sanctions and an allowance which let states set and define their own proficiency standards ended up encouraging states to lower standards in order to make their test scores look better. Obama criticized this as well.
"[States] don't want to get penalized?" he said. "Let's make sure that the standards are so low that we're not going to be seen failing to meet them. That makes no sense."
Yet to some education watchers, Obama's reforms don't necessarily mark a departure from the market-driven reform philosophy that fueled No Child Left Behind. "The Obama administration's ideology is very consistent with the intent of No Child Left Behind as it began under the second George Bush administration," said Yun.
Yun noted that charter schools, whose role in the reform landscape Obama has expanded, do no better on average than their traditional public school counterparts. Numerous studies have shown too that merit pay schemes which seek to attach teachers' pay to their students' test scores do not lead to measurable improvements in student performance.
"It's as if they've said, 'If we squeeze these schools in the right way and embarrass them sufficiently, that will solve the problem,'" said Gary Orfield, a professor of education at UCLA, of Obama's reform ideas. Orfield said that Obama's primary mechanisms driving school reform in the U.S., like those of his predecessors, have been "more accountability, more tests, and more sanctions."
Orfield said that many of Obama's demands for school turnaround and teacher accountability end up doing more harm than good in the poorest communities and communities of color, which historically are the lowest performing schools and therefore face the most political pressure to show improvement. What these students need, Orfield argues, is more of the comprehensive programs like anti-poverty and desegregation programs which acknowledge the social and economic realities of students' lives.
For now, educators may breathe a sigh of relief as the Obama administration offers them and escape from the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind. What awaits them may be no less harsh.