Blog: The Educated Reporter

NCLB Waivers: What Reporters Need to Know

Education reporters can access a treasure trove of public documents that track significant changes to state exemptions to the most sweeping federal education law of the 21st century, experts said in May at EWA’s 67th National Seminar. 

And reporters will need those documents to piece together the patchwork of state policies that have been created out of the NCLB waiver process established by the U.S. Department of Education,  said the panelists speaking at the EWA event at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  

“It’s really messy,” said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s education program. “Everyone is doing a different thing, taking a different approach.”

A color-coded map based on when states received their waivers from compliance with some of the law’s more stringent accountability measures was projected on a screen behind Hyslop as she spoke.

Forty-two states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have received waivers to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which required states to have 100 percent of their students proficient in math, reading and writing.

States that neither meet the 100 percent proficiency goal nor have a waiver will face sanctions from the federal government, including certain requirements on how to spend federal dollars. 

These waivers are reviewed and approved by U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan and his department. The waivers have been offered partially because of Congress’ inability to reauthorize the  Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funding to schools, Hyslop said. States may apply for exemptions from key NCLB provisions, if they implement new academic standards with tests aligned to measure how well students are meeting these goals, a school accountability mechanism, and teacher evaluations. 

Reporters and editors who cover education changes in states with waivers may review their state’s waiver application and any major amendments at the department’s website.

“A lot [of correspondence] goes back and forth between a state’s program coordinator [and the department],” said Michele McNeil, a former Education Week editor who is now the director of assessment and accountability policy for The College Board.

Also available on the website are historical monitoring reports. And as states continue to implement their new policies, more reports are expected.

What’s not posted at the federal department’s website is as noteworthy as what is, McNeil said. What reporter’s won’t be able to find easily are so-called minor amendments to a state’s waiver. Traditionally, these minor amendments are technical changes. However, McNeil said, there is no explicit definition of what constitutes a major or minor amendment.

McNeil recommend reporters keep in close contact with their state’s education department to track these changes.

Specific story ideas recommended by McNeil include school improvement efforts at the state’s lowest-performing schools; how states and districts are spending non-earmarked federal dollars freed up by the waivers; and how states that are considering abandoning the Common Core State Standards or its aligned tests plan to develop their own.

“States, almost across the board, are having a really hard time to develop strategies to fix the reason why [they have] focus schools to start with,” McNeil said. 

Broader themes reporters should consider, Hyslop said, include the effects of teacher evaluations — which are required as part of the waiver process — and what it means for other states now that Washington state has lost its waiver.

Personally, she said, “I think [Washington’s loss is] a one off — for good reason.”

But the revocation of the waiver illustrates the department isn’t messing around with certain priorities. Washington state lost its waiver in part because a state statute forbid teacher evaluations to include student growth scores determined by standardized tests.

“In general, the department would rather see the state with a waiver, even if they’re having implementation problems,” she said. “There’s lots of wiggle room with waivers. But not this.”


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