President Obama directed the US Department of Education last year to start the waiver process to give states flexibility from some parts of the federal law, which has been due for a rewrite since 2007.
In exchange, states have to show detailed plans for preparing all students for college and careers, targeting federal aid to the students most in need, and pushing for better evaluation and support of teachers and principals.
Twenty-six states have now had waiver plans approved. Another 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, have waiver applications pending.
“It is a remarkable milestone that ... more than half of the states in the country have adopted state-developed, next-generation education reforms,” said US Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement Friday. “A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [the formal name of NCLB] 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.”
But with waiver applications running hundreds of pages long, there could be unintended consequences down the road, just as there have been with NCLB, says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. “You always worry about robbing Peter and paying Paul,” she says, “and right now it’s just a big question mark." She adds, "Some states are going to be pretty well prepared to see their plans through, others not so much.”
It will take years to phase in all the elements of Wisconsin’s waiver plan, notes Wisconsin superintendent Tony Evers. The “ambitious education reform package,” he said in a statement, “is based on college- and career-ready expectations, increased academic rigor, and a multiple-measures approach to assessment and accountability for students and schools.”
Some highlights of the Wisconsin plan:
- Students will now need to earn more credits in math and science. One requirement for the waiver was to raise academic standards to get students on track for college or 21st-century careers, many of which require better math and science backgrounds. To provide a more well-rounded experience, education officials are advocating a state requirement to boost elective credit requirements in subjects such as art, music, and world languages.
- New assessments based on the Common Core State Standards that many states, including Wisconsin, are adopting will be implemented fully in 2014-15. Proficiency standards will be benchmarked nationally and internationally. One complaint about NCLB was that many states set their proficiency standards too low in order for their scores to look good.
- For a subgroup to be tracked in a school’s accountability rating, the minimum number of students needed in a subgroup – such as students with disabilities or of a particular minority race – will be lowered from 40 to 20. This way fewer students will be “invisible” in the system.
- A comprehensive score will place schools into one of five categories, ranging from “fails to meet expectations” to “significantly exceeds expectations.” This replaces NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) measure, which was based on reading and math proficiency targets that went up every year and aimed toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
- The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, and the 10 percent of schools with the largest subgroup achievement gaps, will have four years to show strong improvements through plans approved by the state. Another option for the worst schools is closure. NCLB required a series of interventions for all schools that did not meet AYP goals.
- The state will recognize and reward high-performing schools and highlight some of their best practices. This was a condition for states to receive the waiver, because the Obama administration was concerned that NCLB focused too heavily on underperformers and appeared to be punitive.
Washington State’s plan, which has many similar elements, will free up the state to use more flexibly the $34 million that NCLB had required to be spent on outside providers for services such as tutoring.
Some congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan for overstepping their authority in granting such waivers. Their answer to Mr. Obama’s mantra of “we can’t wait” has been to introduce several education reform bills – to make charter schools more widely available, give states and school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars, and boost teacher effectiveness.
In addition to Wisconsin and Washington, the states that have been approved for waivers from NCLB are: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.
Sept. 6 is the deadline for states that want to apply for the next round of waivers.