NCLB waivers give bad policy new lease on life

by Stan Karp

Stan KarpThe Obama Administration’s approval last week of 10 state applications for waivers from NCLB was another missed opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure. Instead of changing the disastrous direction of federal education policy, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver process allows states to reproduce some of the worst aspects of NCLB’s “test and punish” approach while continuing to ignore real issues, like reducing concentrated poverty or providing equitable funding and high quality pre-K for all schools.

Most media coverage framed the legally dubious waiver process as giving states “flexibility.” But the waivers gave states—and more importantly schools, students, educators, and parents—no flexibility at all in the area they need it most: relief from the plague of standardized testing. When NCLB was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual tests in reading and math. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do and the waivers will mean more testing. As with the Administration’s Race to The Top, states applying for waivers had to commit to implementing another generation of standardized tests based on the “common core” standards that states were also forced to adopt. New Jersey, one of the states getting a waiver, is promising to replace NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress (AYP) system with “annual measurable objectives.” It’s a shell game only testing companies will win.

There will be more tests in more subjects, and the tests will be used not only to abuse students, but to rate and impose sanctions on teachers and the schools of education they came from. This is another set of wrong answers to the wrong questions.

The waivers will also turn up the pressure on schools serving the highest need populations. States must identify the 5 percent of schools with the lowest test scores and turn them into charters or “turnarounds” or close them down. Another 10 percent with low graduation rates or wide achievement gaps must be targeted for similar intervention. This is not a school improvement strategy, it’s a blank check to experiment on poor kids and create chaos in our most vulnerable communities.

The absurdity of closing schools and imposing “disruptive reform” on the poorest communities was underscored the same day the waivers were announced when a study was released showing that “the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.” The continued punishing of schools for the inequality that exists all around them is not reform; it’s a cynical political exercise.

It’s also a continuation of the bipartisan corporate ed reform strategy that has reinforced the state-by-state attack on teacher unions and public sector workers across the country. Here’s what my own Governor, Chris “1 percent” Christie—who has made war against public education and teacher unions the centerpiece of his administration—had to say when New Jersey was named one of the 10 waiver states: “The Obama Administration’s approval of our education reform agenda contained in this application confirms that our bold, common sense, and bipartisan reforms are right for New Jersey and shared by the President and Secretary Duncan’s educational vision for the country.”

NCLB is such a bad law it’s not hard to see why 30 more states are considering filing waiver applications this month. But teachers and parents would do better if their states took a pass on the hollow promise of NCLB waivers and lobbied for a different piece of paper: a pink slip for Arne Duncan.

Related Resources:

Rethinking Schools special collection on NCLB