Senior administration officials said waivers will be awarded to states that adopt academic standards that ensure their high school graduates are ready for college or a career, measure school performance not merely by test results but by student improvement over time, and evaluate teachers and principals using a variety of measures, including but not limited to student test scores.
States will be required to launch “rigorous” campaigns to turn around their lowest-performing schools — the bottom 5 percent. And they will have to devise ways to focus on students with the greatest needs in another 10 percent of schools with low graduation rates or large achievement gaps between students of different races. States will also have greater flexibility with about $1 billion in funding for schools attended by poor children.
States will still be required to test all children in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and report results by subgroups — including race, English learners and students with disabilities — so it is clear how every student is faring.
The plan drew a positive response from the National Education Association:
“President Obama has taken a welcome step forward with this plan. It sets much more realistic goals for schools, while maintaining ESEA’s original commitment to civil rights, high academic standards and success for every student,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
“Teachers have been sounding the alarm on NCLB’s test-label-punish approach for more than 10 years. Now, there is an opportunity to move forward with real reform, especially for the most disadvantaged students,” said Van Roekel.
“Educators want commonsense measures of student progress, freedom to implement local ideas, respect for their judgment and the right to be a part of critical decisions,” said Van Roekel. “This plan delivers.”
The response from the American Federation of Teachers was more critical:
Some of what the administration proposes is promising, some is cause for concern, and there are missed opportunities that could have enhanced both teaching and learning.
We are pleased that the administration's proposal includes more options prospectively for improving low-performing schools, recognizing that many of the remedies prescribed in NCLB were not flexible enough. The proposal also acknowledges the importance of adopting higher college- and career-ready standards, which could include the Common Core State Standards, to prepare kids for a 21st-century knowledge economy.
However, after all we've learned about how to construct and implement meaningful teacher evaluation and development systems since Race to the Top was announced two years ago, we're disappointed that the lessons learned are not evident in this package. Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused. Successful school districts in the United States and in the top-performing nations understand that teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it's a missed opportunity not to follow their lead.
The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Board Association had also sent Education Secretary Arne Duncan a letter expressing concerns when the waiver plan was announced.
In the absence of No Child Left Behind reauthorization, schools should not be penalized for not meeting the conditions of a law that basically everyone agrees is terrible and broken. But there are two huge areas of concern about the administration's course of action. The specific conditions being placed on the waivers are poor policy, as the AFT noted, and it is a bad idea for the administration to claim the authority to attach its own agenda to to the waivers—this is exactly the kind of thing the next Republican to become president will run with about 10 miles farther than Obama, while pointing to Obama as precedent.