President Obama announced on Friday his plan to offer relief to states that are chafing under the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind, the federal education standards championed by George W. Bush in 2002. The proposal would grant states waivers from some NCLB rules that officials have long complained are impossible to meet, including one key provision requiring all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, essentially ending many of the reforms that have come to define U.S. education in the past decade.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability,” Obama said in speech at the White House. “In fact, the way we’ve structured this, if states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards, that prove they’re serious about meeting them.” These new standards will largely come from the same reform measures included in Obama Administration’s existing Race to the Top competitive grant program, and in order to qualify for waivers, states will have to do three things:
First, they must adopt the Common Core curriculum. According to the Department of Education, 44 states have already adopted the curricula, which the administration says is designed to make students “college and career ready.” The adoption of a national curriculum represents a shift from NCLB, under which states could set their own standards. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that states too often set a low bar out of fear of failure.
Second, states must develop plans to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. But unlike NCLB, which required states step into reform every failing school, Obama’s plan only requires states implement drastic reforms in the bottom 5% of schools. Under Obama’s rules, states could choose to replace a school’s principal or a large portion of teachers, close down the school or restart the school under new management, typically a charter school operator.
Third, and perhaps most controversially, states will have to implement a rigorous system of evaluations for teachers and principals based on student progress over time, which is most often measured by standardized test scores.
In exchange for these steps, states would no longer have to meet the reading and math proficiency targets for 2014. They would also be able to throw out NCLB’s pass-fail school evaluation system, which school districts have argued cause far too many schools to be deemed “failing,” in favor of designing their own accountability programs. And, finally, those states that get waivers would be allowed to tap into an estimated $1 billion in federal education dollars that is currently reserved for other purposes under NCLB.
Most states are expected to file for waivers. As many as 13 have already done so, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the Department of Education estimates that under current law, 80% of U.S. public schools would “fail” by 2014.
There is still much uncertainty surrounding NCLB. If Congress chooses to overhaul the program in the coming months or years, states that have rewritten their rules of school accountability to qualify for waivers would likely have to start over. But the Obama Administration’s sweeping move to replace the law’s toughest standards makes one thing clear: The era of No Child Left Behind is ending.