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Defending waivers, Duncan says No Child Left Behind impedes school progress, success

During a pair of press conferences today, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered a rough sketch of the waivers states can use to opt out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) performance benchmarks the Obama administration hopes to roll out by September.

Calling the current set of laws “demoralizing” and “desensitizing,” Duncan excoriated Congress for keeping a “law on the books that impedes progress.” With federal legislators in recess, the likelihood is low lawmakers will reauthorize NCLB — something that was supposed to have happened in 2007.

“This should be bipartisan; it’s the right thing to do for the Congress,” Duncan said during a White House briefing. The secretary singled out the House for the slowdown in negotiations over how best to tweak the accountability measures of the national education law.

At a separate press event Monday, Duncan talked of a process that moves away from the punitive sting of NCLB, a law he accuses of distorting the good progress of schools with its one-size-fits-all approach to assessing K-12 performance.

Pushed for specifics by reporters, he said the current education policy framework is “scared to reward excellence.” Though the current waiver process would include no additional costs, Duncan stressed new approaches for incentivizing creative educators and upping the starting pay of teachers. In July, the secretary said he’d like to move teacher salaries to a minimum of $60,000 all the way up to $150,000.

Duncan said the current regulatory framework focuses too heavily on cut-scores, or levels of proficiency when it should rate progress. He pointed to Tennessee, a state that he says set a very low bar on student accountability and listed 91 percent of its pupils as being proficient in math. After the state upped its standards, that figure dropped to 34 percent. Punishing Tennessee just on the numbers is an example of the “federal law that’s an impediment … to the great works teachers are doing.” The secretary also indicated states that adopt The Common Core State Standards Initiative, a college- and career-focused curriculum that has been adopted voluntarily by 44 states according to Duncan, would be moving in the right direction.

States that refuse to adopt the reforms required to accept the waivers will continue to be judged by NLCB standards.

While Democrats in the House and Senate have come to support a waiver process that sidesteps Congress, some Republicans who are involved in education policy are nonplussed.

Joe Kasper, spokesperson for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote to TAI in an email:

The idea that waivers might be used to circumvent Congress doesn’t sit well, especially if the waivers are used to create an even heavier top-down approach than what’s already in place. And we need to understand the full intent behind the waivers. After this long without a reauthorization, it’s more important that we get things right than rush to put something together or risk doing more of the same when we know what works and what doesn’t.

In the White House briefing, Duncan said he hopes the executive order to move along with the waivers will compel Congress to write a new set of national education policies soon.

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