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Obama, Duncan to spell out terms for waivers to opt out of No Child Left Behind

Later this morning, President Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan are expected to announce a set of criteria for states to opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law following a long period of dissatisfaction with the nine year-old national education policy.

In a press release, the president said, “[t]o help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change.”

He added: “The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level.”

Under the 2002 legislation, students are permitted to transfer to new schools if their current schools fail to meet state proficiency targets two years in a row. Even more costly, 20 percent of an under-performing school’s federal dollars is redirected to fund tutoring services for low-income students after three years of missing state standards. The build up of high-stakes testing that determine whether the state is meeting proficiency benchmarks — called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) — was established by the federal law but allowed for states to craft the specifics.

During a briefing to reporters Thursday, senior administration officials laid out the White House’s expectations before granting states the option to opt out of the punitive portions of NCLB, calling it the “flexibility package.”

Broadly, states would need to develop a set of instructional standards that are college- and career-ready. In August, Duncan told reporters states adopting The Common Core State Standards Initiative, a college- and career-focused set of educational content for K-12 students already adopted voluntarily by 44 states, would be a move in the right direction. He said states should also adopt School Improvement Grant (SIG) provisions like turning around the bottom five percent of schools while having plans in place to improve schools with low graduation rates and subsets of the student body that are considerably behind their peers.

One administration official said Thursday the “flexibility package should reward achieving schools that serve low-income students.” Critics of NCLB maintained states were penalized because the law was limited in its overview: it judged states solely on whether they met performance goals without considering the rate of improvement.

States would also need to implement means-based teacher evaluation systems, a nod to the controversial ‘value-added’ metric that rates teachers based on student improvement on standardized tests.

“This is not a competition, we encourage all states to apply,” said another official who took part in the call-in. However, the official also added, ”those who don’t will have to live with current law.”

Kristen Amundson, head of communications at education think tank Education Sector based in Washington, D.C., said the emphasis on flexibility, and by extension, the dearth of expected quantifiable outputs is intentional. “The department seems very sincere in laying out general parameters for improving systems without hard numbers. I would be surprised if they did,” she said.

A fact sheet spells out in greater detail what measures states should adopt to win waivers. It is available, here (PDF).

Stressing the administration wants to be an ally of states on education policy, Duncan wrote in a statement, “[w]e want to get out of the way and give states and districts flexibility to develop locally-tailored solutions to their educational challenges while protecting children and holding schools accountable for better preparing young people for college and careers.”

Forty-five state education leaders helped draft the terms for the waivers. With ten exceptions, the secretary is permitted to make adjustments to NCLB as stated in the law, as laid out in this (PDF) suit Connecticut filed against the Department of Education in 2006.

But Bill Bosher, now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who served as superintendent of public instruction for the state from 1994-1997, speculated the move towards giving states a reprieve is political. “The timing raises a question: has [the administration’s] philosophy about assessments changed? Probably not,” he said. “So a more pragmatic analysis would be, they’re going to compromise with states to try to redefine their focus, at end of the term, on the lowest performing schools.”

The White House had announced states would be able to opt out of NCLB — the current reiteration of the decades-old Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — in August following the administration’s frustration with Congress’ inability to reauthorize ESEA despite the president’s urging to have a bill ready before the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

In June, Duncan told reporters over 80 percent of schools nationally would be deemed “failing” according to (AYP). While recent reports have not shown that high a percentage of schools falling behind, a many states are posting numbers that show more than half of the schools are not up to snuff.

Also in August, the secretary called NCLB “demoralizing” and “disincentivizing,” and excoriated Congress for keeping a “law on the books that impedes progress.”

By design, lawmakers were supposed to reauthorize the law back in 2007.

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