Blog: The Educated Reporter

NCLB: A Glass Now More Than Half Empty?

The number of states granted waivers from the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind crossed the halfway mark when Washington and Wisconsin joined the 24 others that have obtained waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.

“It is a remarkable milestone that in only five months, more than half of the states in the country have adopted state-developed, next-generation education reforms to improve student learning and classroom instruction, while ensuring that resources are targeted to the students that need them most,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement late last week announcing the new waivers. “A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains the best path forward in education reform, but as 26 states have now demonstrated, our kids can’t wait any longer for Congress to act.”

Indeed, it has been quite a wait for students, educators, parents, schools, and states. The reauthorization of ESEA is more than four years overdue. Given the fiercely partisan mood on the Hill and the looming election cycle, there is little optimism for a speedy resolution. In the meantime, what does it mean to have more than 50 percent of the nation’s states exempt from NCLB’s accountability standards? And just how much are the waivers really helping students and schools?

The New York Times’ Motoko Rich explored whether the milestone essentially means NCLB has been nullified. Joshua Starr, superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in Maryland, told the Times that his state’s waiver won’t have much impact. “It is another example to me of how we’re not focused on the right things in the American education conversation today,” Starr said in the Times story. “I have a lot of respect for Arne Duncan but it’s just sort of moving around the chairs on the Titanic.”

I have mixed feelings about this. As an education beat reporter in Nevada, I spent a great deal of time  (probably too much time) explaining NCLB to readers, covering policy forums and town hall meetings and symposiums about implementation, and reporting on efforts by schools, districts and states to meet the enormously complex, and often wholly unrealistic, expectations of the federal law.

The central tenet of the law, that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 academic year, never seemed like much more than a one-way ticket to Fantasyland when NCLB debuted. It is, however, a noble goal, and one that educators and schools should surely strive to meet.

Last year I spoke with Eugene Hickok, deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush and a key architect of No Child Left Behind and its subsequent implementation. I asked him whether setting the bar at a more realistic level had ever been discussed.

“The analogy we used at the time was why we don’t try to get a man to the moon by 70 percent, or let’s send him to the moon, but let’s not worry about getting him back,” said Hickok, who is now a senior policy director for Dutko Worldwide, a public affairs and lobbying organization. “Politically, there’s just no alternative. You can’t say let’s get 90 percent of our kids to be successful and write off 10 percent.”

Here’s what I can tell you: It was literally a painful experience to have to write, year after year, about how many local schools would be labeled as “failing” despite making every logical attempt at improvement. Under the original parameters of NCLB it doesn’t take much for a school to fall short. Failing to have 95 percent of eligible students present for testing will do it. Low performance by just one or two students in a particular subgroup can also lead to a failing grade.

On the upside, thanks to NCLB, there is a wealth of data on student achievement that simply never existed prior to the law’s passage and that can only help schools improve in the long run. People often don’t believe me when I tell them that until it was federally mandated, most states couldn’t tell you how many black or Hispanic students had graduated in a given year.

Where is the happy medium between demanding 100 percent of students demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and giving schools a free pass from accountability? The optimist in me hopes the new incarnation of ESEA will find it.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

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