Duncan could waive No Child Left Behind

If Congress doesn’t update No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he’ll waive key requirements “in exchange for states agreeing to adopt other efforts he has championed, such as linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, expanding charter schools and overhauling the lowest-performing schools,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

“Principals, superintendents and children cannot wait forever for the legislative process to work itself out,” Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “As it exists now, No Child Left Behind is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers.”

Revising the law, which requires states to test students in math and reading, was supposed to be this year’s bipartisan achievement. But leading Republicans want to reduce the federal government’s growing role in K-12 schools. Progress has been slow.

Both Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. John Kline, Republican chairman of the House education committee, criticized Duncan’s threat to do an end run around Congress.

Update:  Duncan “is not permitted to remake federal law on the fly,” even if he thinks it’s a really good idea, writes Rick Hess.

After barely convincing Congress to keep Race to the Top on life support, Duncan is intent on unilaterally pushing his same pet priorities through the back door? He’s planning to offer regulatory relief only if states adopt reforms that are utterly absent in the relevant legislation? Facing backlash on the right and left over concerns that the administration coerced states to embrace test-driven teacher evaluation and the Common Core through Race to the Top, Duncan’s strategy is to double down?

Republicans won’t go along, Hess predicts. It’s not clear Democrats will either. Duncan’s favored ed reforms aren’t popular with the teachers’ unions, for example.

“Was the Constitution changed over the weekend abolishing the House of Representatives?” asks Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform.

Waive the worst parts of NCLB, but “don’t try to tie this stuff to new, made-up mandates,” advises Mike Petrilli.

Can we rewrite NCLB by August?

President Obama wants to rewrite No Child Left Behind before the start of the next school year. The “blueprint” for change includes easing the proficiency targets that his Education Department predicts 82 percent of schools will miss. On National Journal, Education Experts discuss whether a new education law can be passed by August and how it should be changed.

It’s no surprise that most schools won’t reach their goals, writes Steve Peha. Most educators aren’t really trying, knowing that nothing much is likely to happen if they fail.

One thing the anti-NCLB crowd doesn’t often talk about is that much of NCLB never got implemented because so many of the people it affected worked so hard to weasel out of it.

To make matters worse, states lowered their cut scores and made their tests easier to pass, schools and districts cheated on their testing, and much of the money that went to schools in trouble was wasted by people who seemed to prefer their troubles to positive change.

In his work as a consultant, Peha talked to many educators who hoped NCLB  would go away eventually. “And now it is about to.”

The very people who did the least to implement the law have won—to a small extent at least. Because all they had to do to “prove” NCLB a failure was not implement good practice.

“Most of the ideas floated for potential implementation seem weaker and less coherent than what we have now,” Peha writes. “I think the reason we haven’t reauthorized NCLB is that, for all its unpopularity, no one has come up with anything better.”

Despite the president’s call for action, House Education Chair John Kline won’t “rush” reauthorization, notes Rick Hess on Straight Up. “I’m not going to rush this and do it wrong,” Kline told The Hill on Tuesday.

NEA-friendly Democrats and small-government Republicans could block action in the Senate, predicts Hess, while “House Republicans who promised to dramatically shrink the federal footprint” aren’t “eager to pass an education bill that retains any federal role when it comes to school improvement or teacher effectiveness.”

The politics of special education

What’s ahead for special education in 2011? Special education funding is a “passionate cause” for Rep. John Kline, the new chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, notes the National Journal.

Is Kline’s desire to fund special education at the 40 percent level a pie-in-the-sky dream? Should special education be considered as its own animal, or should a debate about special education funding levels be discussed as part of the overall Education Department budget?

Money isn’t the key issue, responds Sandy Kress, who was an education advisor to President George W.  Bush. The performance of students with disabilities improved significantly when No Child Left Behind began holding schools accountable for their success. Many who want to provide more funding for special ed also want to let schools off the hook for the academic performance of disabled students. Once again, there will be no consequences for failing to educate special-ed students.  “This would be a shameful step backwards for disabled students,” Kress argues.

What parts of NCLB should be left behind?

No Child Left Behind should be rewritten in pieces, not in a comprehensive overhaul, says Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who will chair the House Education and Labor Committee in January.  National Journal asks:

Which “pieces” of the No Child Left Behind puzzle can be worked out on their own? What changes can be widely agreed upon? Benchmark reform? Special education funding? Teacher assessments? School accountability? Does it make sense to rework the law in small bites? If lawmakers manage to take the pressure off schools by adjusting the 2014 proficiency benchmarks, does that destroy the momentum for other changes that are harder to implement?

Scrap NCLB and start over, writes Diane Ravitch.

We’ll never beat the Asian tigers on PISA if we give up on getting all our students over NCLB’s grade-level achievement bar, writes Sandy Kress.

Expect a NCLB patch to avoid labeling schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess.

Local control: Is there a deal?

Republican John Kline, the likely chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, wants to restore “local control” of education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to push reform through Race to the Top grants. But both Republicans and Democrats want to modify No Child Left Behind, officially the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In its current version, 100 percent of students must reach “proficiency”  by 2014 or their schools will be considered failures. National Journal asks: Is there room for a deal?

Conservatives have tough decisions to make, write Sandy Kress.

Are we for local control so much that we support encrusted, top-heavy, expensive local bureaucracy? Are we for local control so much that we support union and bureaucracy-based decisions that prevent meaningful parental choice? Are we for local control so much that we support decisions in many districts that foster waste and ineffective spending?

Really the only “intrusion” from NCLB is to say that for all the federal dollars schools and districts receive they must be held accountable (by the locals!) for closing the achievement gap for poor kids and kids of color. The sad part of this “intrusion” is that it permits this accountability to be so much on local terms it can be to low standards.

So, is taking away even that pressure what is meant by “relief” and allowing the locals “to make their own decisions?”

Secretary Duncan’s reforms don’t have a proven record of helping vulnerable students, writes Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor.  “So it just looks like Washington arbitrarily telling local communities how to run their schools.”

Expect a NCLB patch in 2011 — not a full-scale reauthorization — to avoid labeling most schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess. His long-term bet: “A bipartisan measure which renders NCLB toothless — either by making its remedy provisions voluntary or otherwise declawing AYP — will pass sometime in 2012.”

School groups are pushing for “regulatory relief,” reports Ed Week. But some think regulatory fixes “could slow the momentum for a comprehensive, bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA.”

Let the infighting begin

Democrats don’t agree on school reform, writes RiShawn Biddle in his analysis of the mid-term elections. Republican infighting has just begun.

The fact that so many Democrats lost despite the $24 million spent by both unions on their behalf in the last week (and $40 million by the NEA alone this year) is one more sign that the NEA and AFT are no longer useful to the party. That President Obama’s school reform agenda remains the only popular aspect of an overall agenda that has been largely rejected by voters this year — along with the fact that reform-oriented candidates such as Joe Manchin and Chris Coons have won their respective races — also means that the two unions will have fewer supporters inside the party ranks.

Centrist and progressive Democrat school reformers see education as a civil rights issue, which makes improving teacher quality a civil rights issue. “But the NEA and the AFT are the biggest obstacles to the much-needed overhauls in teacher recruitment, training and compensation that are critical to the school reform agenda,” Biddle writes.

Republicans are split too. Rep. John Kline, the likely chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, opposes No Child Left Behind’s accountability provisions. In a statement, he called for local control.

Expect a clash within the congressional Republican camp as reform-minded conservatives of the standards-and-accountability bent (including soon-to-be speaker John Boehner, who helped usher in No Child when he was education committee chairman) battle over policy with the Kline camp (who represent suburban districts that have long-opposed reform efforts) and movement conservatives with small government leanings and a desire to dial back federal policy in all areas.

Boehner is a politically savvy education reformer, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. But he won’t rule by fiat.

. . . many of Tuesday’s winners are coming to Washington set on cutting federal spending, which means that unlike in the past, big infusions of cash will not be available to help grease the wheels for political deals around education reform.

Don’t expect any big education bills, Rotherham writes. The Education Department doesn’t know how to work with Congress and the two parties are divided internally on education policy.

Guest-blogging on Rick Hess Straight Up, Andrew Kelly, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow, analyzes the state results. Ohio and Florida, recent Race to the Top winners, elected governors who could revamp state education policies and end union “buy-in,” Kelly writes.

In Oklahoma, 81 percent of voters rejected a proposition that would have required the state to maintain per-pupil funding levels comparable to the five neighboring states. Republican Janet Barresi, founder of two successful charter schools, was elected state superintendent. She promises to expand parental choice, including homeschooling.

If GOP wins, ed reform could lose

What happens to education reform, if the Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress? The House GOP’s Pledge to America doesn’t even mention education, observe Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli on Flypaper and Gadfly. To the extent there is a national Republican policy, it favors local control and state’s rights.

In an Education Week interview, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who’d likely chair the education committee in a Republican House, opposed extending Race to the Top because the states don’t get to decide their own policy. Kline also said he’s watching the Common Core State Standards “very closely,” warning that if the feds get involved in “putting in a de facto national curriculum,” his “caucus will rebel.”

If the Republicans “reflexively revert to weary old themes” of state’s rights, local control and parental choice, the opportunity to reform education will be lost, Petrilli writes.

States’ rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they’ll be effective.

Sure, some states are honorable (partial) exceptions to this glum litany but—honestly—not many. Without cajoling, bribing, nudging, and scolding from Washington, we suspect there would be fewer, not more. The fact is that state legislatures are where the traditional public-school establishment wields the most power and is best able — often working behind the scenes — to keep anything much from changing. (In Colorado, most of the Democratic members of the state House education committee are former teachers—and current union members.)

“The old GOP education agenda isn’t what 21st America needs,” Petrilli writes.  Fordham backs “reform realism,”  which means “tight” controls on the results we want our schools to achieve but “loose” controls on how schools, districts, and states get there.

The Obama Administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization isn’t a bad summation of “reform realism” in action, and Republicans should seize much of it. Trashing “adequate yearly progress,” devolving authority back to the states when it comes to “accountability,” and killing the “highly qualified teacher” provision are all in line with Kline and company’s instincts around state and local control—and well worth doing.

But the GOP should also embrace some of its reform aspects, too, like turning more formula grants into competitive ones and promoting tenure reform.

It’s possible victorious Republicans would team up with the administration on realistic reforms, Petrilli writes. But it’s just as likely the GOP will give up on education reform in the name of local control.

Update: On Cato @ Liberty, Neal McCluskey urges Republicans to “tell Uncle Sam to butt out” of education and give control to parents.