Moving the goalposts on NCLB

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Massachusetts and nine other states made news last week by seeking and receiving waivers from major provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  The law was never a favorite of mine but I think the way it was upended and why says a lot about the centralizing worldview of federal and state policymakers.

First thing is to separate process and substance.  The process on the waivers is wrongheaded—and likely illegal.  Stay tuned for more on that. On the substance, US Department of Ed Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the key requirements he wanted Massachusetts to fulfill, on standards (what Sec. Duncan calls college- and career-readiness standards), instruction and leadership, and accountability.

On standards, Massachusetts met the feds’ requirement by adopting new national standards and national assessments in July 2010.  No news there, and not good news given the mediocrity of the Common Core national standards (if you’re interested in a good pro and con conversation on Common Core, read this.)  Massachusetts met the feds’ requirement on teacher evaluations by adopting statewide regulations on evaluations in June 2011.

The real story on the waivers is about accountability and the education establishment’s antipathy to school choice in any form.  NCLB touched on a number of aspects of school life including school safety, communication with parent and teacher qualifications, but at its core was accountability.  It never changed state standards, nor did it focus on input requirements (how much to spend, how specifically to teach, etc.).  Instead, it relied on accountability to drive its ambitious goal that ALL children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  It required testing students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and one high school grade.

Here’s a short list of why the waivers are not a great step forward for schoolkids and parents when it comes to education and accountability:

Will the new accountability system work?  We have no idea.  With the waiver in hand, Massachusetts will now unify state and federal requirements regarding school and district accountability and assistance through a new five-tier system.  The state’s education department will from summer 2012 classify schools and districts

in one of five accountability and assistance levels. Schools meeting their proficiency gap closing goals will be placed in Level 1, schools not meeting their gap closing goals will be placed in Level 2, schools with the largest proficiency gaps for student subgroups and for all students will be placed in Level 3. The state’s lowest performing schools will be placed in Level 4 or 5. Districts will be placed in a level based on the performance of their lowest performing schools.

Will it work? The new Massachusetts accountability system is at best a work in progress.  The Bay State used to have a tough state accountability office for schools, but that was shuttered for all intents and purposes in 2008.  There’s not been a full-blown district accountability report (covering teacher evaluation, curriculum development, professional development, building upkeep and maintenance, use of data to inform decision-making, student performance by subgroup, etc.) since 2009.

Proficiency for all students is not the same as making progress in closing the proficiency gap. AYP was a problematic construct but its goal was clear and its provisions were clear. AYP required that ALL (100%) schoolkids be “proficient” (by state definition) by 2014.  Each year until 2014, district and charter public schools had to make improvement toward that goal.  AYP looked at overall school outcomes, but it also forced districts to break out performance and meet AYP targets for subgroups: Asian & Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, White, Free/Reduced Lunch, Special education, and Limited English proficiency.  (The subgroups had to have 30 or more students to be included.)

The Massachusetts waiver sets a different bar – and it is lower.  In its application, Massachusetts promises that it will give districts 6 years to cut the number of students not at grade level in half.  Not only does that move the goalposts back time-wise but the state’s press announcement states:

Targets will be differentiated for each school, district, and subgroup based on its starting point in 2010-11.

In lay terms, that means that some districts get treated differently from others.

AYP was a tool that sought to change how schools did business, but schools don’t want to change how they do business.  Schools not meeting NCLB’s AYP goals for

  • two consecutive years were to give students an opportunity to transfer to a higher-performing district school
  • three years were to offer students tutoring and other supplemental services, as well as school choice options
  • five years had to take tougher steps like replacing school personnel or extending the school year

And since the start of NCLB, districts and schools have been very reticent (and in most cases hostile) toward any of these actions.  Most of the outside sought by districts has been focused on central office-driven solutions.


Moving away from clear consequences for schools has put the state education department in the driver’s seat, but do they have any destination in mind? Massachusetts DESE insists that the change will allow it to focus its “most dramatic interventions where they are most needed.” I’m not sure the department is any good at this.  In fact, as noted in this blog before, few interventions across the country have actually made a longterm difference.  We are about to find out very fast, with the state’s takeover of the Lawrence Public Schools, whether something has magically changed.

The state’s menu of interventions (expanded learning time, fixing long-broken professional development, and wrap-around social services) is not very promising in terms of empirical record.  And its process-heavy description of why it needed a waiver does not bode well either.

At one time NCLB provided useful feedback on district and school performance


Under NCLB’s original goal – 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014 – rising federal targets resulted in far too many schools and districts being identified as in need of improvement to enable the state to effectively identify those in greatest need of assistance or intervention.

You could read that last sentence as stating for the umpteenth time that NCLB was okay until it started to bite.  But it also underscores that the state believes that its own technical interventions are what will fix our schools.  That is a very different mindset from what I consider a strength of NCLB.  Rather than thinking that bureaucrats (the state department of ed) will reform bureaucratic systems (our districts), NCLB gave safety valve choices to parents who were in districts that were failing to meet the law’s goals.  The idea behind that was to ensure that we adults don’t simply push back the goal posts whenever big goals promised at big press conferences get pushed back.

It is no surprise that the department’s press release clearly states that “Massachusetts will no longer mandate NCLB school choice and supplemental educational services.”  I get that NCLB was not working, but I also get that this waiver is not a step forward.

It’s the usual goal-post shifting we have come to expect in education.

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs.