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No Child Left Behind: with waivers, Obama offers states flexibility

No Child Left Behind is under fire, with President Obama offering waivers to some states, allowing them to pursue their own plans for school improvements and accountability.

By Staff writer / September 23, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the need to provide states with relief from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind education policy, in the East Room of the White House in Washington Friday.

Larry Downing/REUTERS

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President Obama today unveiled a sweeping plan to give states the flexibility they have been clamoring for under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law.

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“The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable ... but experience has taught us that in its implementation, [it] had some serious flaws that are hurting our children,” the president said in a White House speech, flanked by students, principals, state education leaders, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Teachers feel pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test, and some states have lowered their standards to avoid penalties under the law, Mr. Obama noted.

“Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far ... So I will,” he said. “If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts ... we’ve got to get serious about education.”

Obama touted the plan as a way to unleash energy to improve schools at the local level.

Under the waiver plan, states would be freed from some parts of the law in order to pursue their own plans for school improvements and accountability, if they meet certain requirements of the Department of Education.

States that are granted waivers won’t get a reprieve from accountability, he said, but flexibility in exchange for higher standards.

The president’s speech comes as the school year gets under way with no good prospects for a full reauthorization of the law, which has been overdue in Congress since 2007.

This summer, some states were even in open revolt when it came to No Child Left Behind’s requirements that they raise the percentage of students achieving reading and math proficiency – and devote extra resources to schools that missed the mark.

Secretary Duncan put states on notice this summer that relief was on the way. The waiver plan has sparked pushback from some lawmakers who say it gives Duncan too much authority and undermines some bills that have been introduced in an attempt to fix some aspects of the law.

But the plan has won praise even from some groups that have been pushing hard for a full rewrite of No Child Left Behind.

“It correctly balances federal and state responsibility ... It says, we expect learning in exchange for federal dollars, but the systems of supports, interventions, sanctions, all of that is left up to the states. That is what is most hopeful,” says Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust in Washington, D.C., which advocates for closing achievement gaps.

The only question going forward, she adds, is “will the states really develop powerful plans.”

Duncan has noted that some states are already leading the way on raising student-achievement standards to reflect what’s needed to go on to college or a career, holding schools accountable for student gains, and improving teacher effectiveness – the three areas where the Department of Education is requiring a commitment in exchange for relief from the law.

Education officials from more than 40 states gave their input to the Department of Education on the waiver plan.

States will be able to apply during this school year for waivers of specific aspects of the law.

One aspect is the original 2014 deadline for schools to achieve 100 percent reading and math proficiency among their students. Instead, a state would have to establish ambitious but achievable goals and support improvement efforts for all schools and all students, according to background provided by White House and Education officials.

States would also have to adopt standards deemed “college and career ready,” which so far 44 states have done by signing onto what’s known as the Common Core State Standards initiative.

The annual proficiency increases to move toward the 2014 goal have been a major sticking point for states recently, as more and more schools fail to reach the targets.

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