Obama’s coming “flexibility” debacle

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The feds may need to check their definition of "flexibility"
Photo by Greeblie.

As of
this writing, the Administration’s announcement on education waivers is just
hours away. The White House is gearing up for a Kumbaya moment, as state officials
gleefully accept the leeway bestowed upon them by President Obama. But as the
news settles in over the next few days, don’t expect the reactions to be entirely
positive, for it appears that the President and his education secretary have
reneged on their promise of true “flexibility” for the states. Mostly what they
seem to have done is substitute one set of rigid prescriptions for another.

This is
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, as did a broader set of
state groups this 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 recently gained 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 measureable 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.)

The real issue at stake is whether the feds,
or the states, should make such calls.

All of
these issues can be debated ad nauseam 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?

How this is going to end: 3
predictions

So how
will this go down?

  • In coming days, 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 right
    now.
  • 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. John Kline will push his Republican reauthorization bills
    through the House. And then progress will stop as we await the results of the
    November election.

In other words, don’t expect “Kumbaya” to last very long.

A version of this essay appeared on Fordham's Flypaper blog on Monday.

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