ESEA Waivers: Are They Worth the Trouble?

With a week two weeks to go until the February 21 February 28 deadline* for the second round of Secretary Duncan’s ESEA Waiverpalooza, states nationwide are studying the results of Round One to figure out what federal officials did—and didn’t—approve. And they are asking themselves a question: Is it even worth it? (A few states—including California and Pennsylvania have already decided: no.)

In the end, I suspect that most of the 28 states that have indicated an interest in a waiver will file for one, if only because, by this point, they’ve already sunk thousands of man-hours and tens of thousands of dollars into the process. And some of the flexibility provided by the feds to the first ten approved states is for real—getting rid of the “100 percent proficient by 2014” deadline; allowing all Title I schools to spend their dollars in a “schoolwide” manner; eliminating the ill-designed supplemental services program; ending the “highly qualified teachers” mandate.

But what about the accountability policies at the heart of No Child Left Behind? Just how much leeway did the Administration actually provide? Let’s consider three big problems with current law, and whether the waiver process fixed them.

Problem #1: A vision of “improvement” that looks at how this year’s cohort compares to last year’s, rather than individual student growth over time.
A few leading states—I’m thinking of Colorado especially—have leapfrogged several generations by focusing on the performance trajectories of individual students, rather than looking at different cohorts of kids over time. In the Colorado system, the goal is for schools to put their students on a course to be college and career ready by the end of high school. That creates strong incentives for schools to accelerate the progress of kids who are far behind, while paying attention to kids at the middle and top of the performance spectrum, too. This makes perfect sense, right?

Not according to the bean counters on Maryland Avenue. They insisted that Colorado add to its system of annual targets for getting a certain number of students to “proficiency”—with the expectation that an increasing number of kids would reach that target every year.

But that’s Accountability 1.0 thinking. Why do we care about how this year’s fourth graders perform versus last year’s fourth graders? Or whether more fourth graders reached “proficient”? What matters is whether kids are on track for college and career readiness—and whether students make enough progress over the school year to get them onto this trajectory. At least in the Colorado case, the feds have taken an elegant and rational system and made it more complicated and convoluted.

Problem #2: A race-based system of school accountability.
No Child Left Behind played a critical role in exposing the achievement gaps that plague so many of our schools. Continuing to demand transparency around subgroup performance makes eminent sense. But requiring that accountability systems be explicitly race-based is problematic, especially as the conception of “race” continues to change and an increasing number of students view themselves as multiracial. Furthermore, policies that encourage schools to literally “narrow the gap” enshrine in public policy the notion that we are rooting for white, Asian, and affluent students to do worse, or at least do no better. This is nuts. Yet if anything, the waiver process has exacerbated this problem.

Back to Colorado. Its focus on individual performance mitigates the need for subgroups because it creates strong incentives for schools to focus on their lowest achievers, many of whom belong to one or more of the various subgroups. (These kids generally have to make a LOT of progress to be on track for college and career readiness.) But that wasn’t enough for the Department; Uncle Sam wanted subgroup accountability, too.

Or consider Florida. Its longstanding accountability system includes a weight for the growth of a school’s lowest performing quartile. This excellent provision is another way to pressure schools to pay attention to their educationally neediest kids. So how did this system fare with federal officials? Not well. The same bean-counters (or peer reviewers, or both, it’s hard to be sure) demanded that Florida promise to intervene in schools that get positive school ratings – A’s and B’s even – if one or more of their subgroups isn’t up to par. But they can only get A’s or B’s if their low performing students are making strong progress. Bottom line: Florida got overruled.

Problem #3: Labeling everyone a failure means nobody’s a failure.
Probably the biggest complaint about No Child Left Behind was that it over-identified schools and districts as failing, meaning that the very worst institutions—the full-blown dropout factories—got lost in the mix. So one goal of the waiver process is to bring the number of failing schools down to a more realistic number, right?

Then try to explain the feds’ reaction to Tennessee’s proposal. In its explanation of the changes that Tennessee made to its original proposal, the Department of Education boasted that “based on data from the 2010-2011 school year, 105 of 135 districts would be identified.” And this is a good thing?

The feds also bragged that Minnesota agreed (under pressure, one assumes) to drop the “safe harbor” provision from its accountability system—meaning schools that have low proficiency rates but are making great progress will no longer escape the “failing schools” label. What’s the point of that?

So again, is “flexibility” worth it? For states hoping to adopt next-generation accountability systems—those that move beyond the poor design choices of No Child Left Behind—the answer appears to be no. But hey, getting rid of the highly qualified teachers mandate is nice.

-Michael Petrilli

* Update: The deadline for the second round of ESEA waivers, originally February 21, was pushed back to February 28.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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