Way back in March of 2010, President Obama released his blueprint for reauthorizing the education law that’s commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In it, he called for changing the way schools are identified for improvement from the criteria-referenced system that NCLB uses, where states set an objective “proficiency” benchmark and hold accountable all schools that fail to meet it, to a norm-referenced system that prioritizes improvement efforts focused on a set percentage of schools that are the lowest performing. Once you understand this basic lens through which the Obama administration* sees the world, all of its major education initiatives—such as Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and NCLB waivers—make a lot more sense.
Three years later, we’re still operating as if the blueprint never happened, as if three years of policymaking hasn’t happened. The latest example comes from the Campaign for High School Equity, which found that (surprise!) the Obama administration is allowing states to identify fewer schools for improvement than they had under NCLB. The Associated Press breathlessly reported the finding that, “Millions of at-risk students could fall through the cracks as the Education Department gives states permission to ignore parts of No Child Left Behind.” But this wasn’t some unintended consequence of NCLB waivers; it is the administration’s theory of action.
The Obama administration hasn’t always been fully forthright about this, especially Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He has boasted that state waiver requests “capture” tens of thousands more students by using lower thresholds for the number of students who count toward accountability. For example, if a state previously had a threshold of 40 students, a school with only 39 African-American students would not have been accountable for African-American students. Under the waiver initiative, many states have dropped those thresholds down to 20 or 30 students, meaning more poor and minority students “count” toward a school’s rating. While Duncan is technically right that more schools are held accountable for more subgroups of students, he is also letting more schools avoid NCLB’s consequences. He can’t have it both ways.
The administration is betting on states to focus their efforts on a small, finite number of low-performing schools. Those schools are now subject to strong improvement efforts, backed by billions of dollars in federal support. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that was a good bet: Will states follow up on their promises, and will their schools actually be able to improve? It’s also fair to ask whether the percentages Obama set (in the NCLB waivers, it’s 5 percent of the lowest performing schools and another 10 percent of schools with large achievement gaps) are the right ones.
Like it or not, the world of education accountability is headed in a normative direction—42 states, the District of Columbia, and eight large school districts in California are all making normative decisions now—and this should change how we look at all sorts of issues. For example, if and when states implement new assessments aligned to the Common Core, it won’t really matter for accountability purposes if proficiency rates fall. Accountability is now mostly tied to how schools compare to each other, not some pre-determined “proficiency” bar. There is no secret agenda, and we need to start thinking about how it affects all of our education policies.
*Disclosure: I worked at the Department of Education from April of 2011 through August of 2012.
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