Obama’s Coming ‘Flexibility’ Debacle

An announcement on education waivers is anticipated this week. Don’t expect the reaction to be positive, for it appears that the President and his education secretary will renege on their promise of “flexibility” for the states.

This would be a big change in a short period. Through most of 2011, the Obama Administration reaped accolades for its intention to allow states to take a new course vis-à-vis the Elementary and Secondary Education act (a.k.a. NCLB). In September, the President got wall-to-wall coverage of the official announcement of his plan to offer waivers to the states to give them “more flexibility to meet high standards.”

Keep in mind, the change we’re making is not lowering standards; we’re saying we’re going to give you more flexibility to meet high standards. We’re going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future. Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee—but every student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what state they live in.

Set aside the debate about the conditions he attached to those standards. Set aside the small matter of Constitutionality and separation of powers. On the issue of flexibility itself, virtually everyone seemed to be in agreement (at least in theory): The 10-year-old law is broken and it’s time to fix it. In particular, Adequate Yearly Progress needs to go the way of the dinosaurs and be replaced by something very different. Even on Capitol Hill, for all the misgivings about Duncan’s unilateralism, there was broad consensus that states should be given much greater leeway to design next-generation accountability systems. (Leeway that both Republican and Democratic governors asked for in an NGA policy statement released last week.)

The idea of flexibility is so popular, in fact, that the President reiterated it in his State of the Union address:

Let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making.

So far so good. It certainly appeared from the rhetoric that the Administration would make every effort to approve reasonable proposals from states, including the 11 that applied in November for the first round of waivers (the round for which results are now imminent). The era of “Washington knows best” in education would come to an end.

But no. Thanks to excellent reporting by Associated Press correspondent Christine Armario, we now have access to letters the U.S. Department of Education sent to these states in December. Which document that federal micromanagement is still the order of the day.

Consider the missive sent to Massachusetts—the first-place finisher in the Race to the Top, the state with the highest achievement in the land, the one that has seen dramatic gains across all subgroups of students, a strong supporter (for better or worse) of the Common Core standards. One might assume that the Bay State would be given the benefit of the doubt. But no.

Here’s an excerpt from the Department’s response to the Massachusetts waiver request:

Please address concerns identified by peers regarding subgroup accountability, including:

    • Without sufficient safeguards to ensure attention and action when an individual subgroup is struggling over a number of years, the use of the “high needs” combined subgroup could lead to individual subgroups not meeting their goals even when the “high needs” combined subgroup is moving forward, and therefore undermine the goal of improved achievement for all students.
    • Massachusetts’s current n-size for subgroups is too high and should be reduced.
    • Schools with high English Learner populations may not be receiving appropriate, targeted interventions.

And another:

    • Please address concern that without differentiating schools within Level 2, there are insufficient incentives to improve achievement for all groups of students. In particular, please address the concern that annual measurable objectives (AMOs) are not used along with other measures to provide incentives and supports to other Title I schools that are not making progress in improving student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps.

(That’s just the tip of the iceberg; read the whole thing yourself.)

All of these issues can be debated ad nauseum by policy wonks. For example, when creating an A to F rating system, what should qualify a school for an A? Strong achievement? Strong growth over time? If the school misses an achievement or growth target for one subgroup (say, special education kids) should that disqualify it for an A? What if all subgroups are doing well but there’s still a big achievement gap?

Whatever your view on these arcane matters, the real issue at stake is whether the feds, or the states, should make such calls. How can the President promise a state like Massachusetts “flexibility to meet high standards” and then second-guess its attempt to rationalize its accountability system?

So how will this go down?

  • The Department of Education will announce that most of the 11 states that applied were approved for flexibility. At first, this will lead to a Kumbaya moment.
  • Upon closer inspection, observers will notice that the amount of flexibility granted on accountability is tiny. Approved plans will amount to minor changes away from the AYP system we’ve got today.
  • The number of states planning to apply for waivers by February 21 will drop precipitously, as they realize that it’s just not worth the effort.
  • All of this will embolden members of Congress to talk (again) about the urgency of fixing No Child Left Behind for real (though nothing will come of it this year).

-Mike Petrilli

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

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