Local educators weigh in on No Child Left Behind Act waivers
The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act put a lofty goal over the heads of the nation's public school educators - make sure all students are proficient in math and English by 2014.
While the federal law was designed to increase accountability and ensure that all student populations - including minorities and English learners - received a quality education, it has long been criticized for its unrealistic targets and accompanying punitive actions for districts that don't make the grade.
Last week President Barack Obama granted 10 states flexibility from some of the landmark legislation's toughest regulations.
To be considered, states must be developing career and college readiness standards and are required to enact their own challenging achievement targets and accompanying accountability system.
California's State Board of Education may go for the option and the matter has been discussed at recent meetings.
"While our state continues to weigh its options regarding a waiver, this much is clear: one top-down decade is enough. The law's failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement last week.
Local administrators said they hope for a system that actually recognizes improvement instead of punishing schools that don't meet rigid targets.
"The reality is that that the law creates a picture with the public that you have failing schools, and yet the schools have been making consistent gains. They just can't get 100 percent proficiency," said Rowland Unified Superintendent Maria Ott.
While the waivers provide the state's about 1,000 school districts with flexibility from some of the federal requirements, they don't fix the fundamental flaws of NCLB, Ott said.
"I think the bigger question for us as a nation and with Congress is we need to revisit the entire No Child Left Behind law. Congress does not seem ready to take this on and it's probably not going to happen," she said.
Although NCLB's sweeping reforms were passed with bi-partisan support in 2002, lawmakers in recent years have been divided on the federal government's role in education. The legislation has been up for renewal since 2007.
"(The waivers) are moving away from a highly federal education policy to give states more flexibility without lightening up Washington's emphasis on narrowing achievement gaps," said Bruce Fuller, UC Berkeley education and public policy professor.
Under NCLB, schools must meet annual growth targets on the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) scale for all of its student populations, including special education students, economically disadvantaged students and English learners.
If students in each specific group do not meet those targets for two years in a row, the school is designated as in Program Improvement and must develop a two-year improvement plan.
A failure to meet those targets in subsequent years carries a host of requirements, ranging from allocating money to provide free tutoring, to restructuring or closing down entire schools.
A waiver in California would ease some of those requirements - a notion that East Whittier City School District Superintendent Joe Gillentine would gladly welcome.
One of the district's schools, Mulberry Elementary, is in Year 2 of Program Improvement, mandating it to allocate 20 percent of its federal funding - about $190,000 - to provide free tutoring services for students who qualify.
The tutoring is performed by private, state-approved companies.
"I don't think it's been a good use of money," Gillentine said. "It's one of the negative aspects of NCLB."
Instead, district officials would rather set up their own after-school program that ties in lessons from the regular school day, they said.
Shedding federal accountability provisions would mean that California would solely use the Academic Performance Index (API), the state's own benchmark for measuring progress and improvement.
The two systems, AYP and API, have both been in place for more than a decade, confusing many parents who may be told that their schools are either failing or succeeding depending on which scale they turn to.
According to data from EdSource, a nonprofit research and data analysis organization, between 2006 and 2010, the number of schools successfully meeting federal targets dropped from 74 percent to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of schools posting passing scores on the state's accountability system increased from 37 percent to 46 percent.
The educational community supports the state-mandated version because it recognizes improvement, Fuller said.
"The feds argued that we needed a hard standard, but it tended to penalize teachers who had big hearts and a huge commitment for kids in poor communities and got no credit unless they cleared the proficiency bar (mandated by the federal government)," he said.
With just one accountability tracking system, parents would be better equipped to identify successful schools, Fuller said.
The State Board of Education will ultimately have the final decision to apply for the waiver, which would need to be approved by the federal government.
The first 10 states to be granted waivers last week were Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
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