The future of No Child Left Behind under an Obama second-term

 This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

The election results in: Barack Obama will be a two-term president and the GOP is under treatment for shellshock. What does this mean for the future of the federal legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB), also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?


First a short primer. Historically we’ve judged our nation’s public schools through blurry wide-angle snapshots of districts. We didn’t zoom in on at-risk groups of students so this myopic system hid the foundering achievement of minority groups, poor kids, and children with disabilities. But over the last decade, since the U.S. Congress passed NCLB in 2001, schools are held accountable not only for general achievement, but also for achievement gaps among differentiated cohorts. NCLB requires schools to publish data on test scores in math and language arts for eleven subgroups, highlighting low-performing groups. Data are us.

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If one subgroup misses the escalating target of “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) for two years in a row, that school receives the dreaded label of a “School in Need of Improvement” (SINI). Landing in SINI-territory subjects the school to an escalating set of sanctions, which range from required tutoring for all struggling students to closing down the school.


According to the original hallucinatory NCLB legislation, such focused attention would result in 100% of U.S. students reaching proficiency targets by 2014. And the moon is made of blue cheese. Critics charge that, beyond such unfettered delirium, the law has led to an overreliance on test scores, a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” and a lack of granularity in judging schools to be successes or failures.

Need more time

How to navigate this collision of hope and reality? Call up Congress and tell them to “reauthorize” NCLB in order to provide a bit more leeway from the pipedreams of yesteryear. After all, last year 38% of America’s public schools were labeled Schools In Need of Improvement because they didn’t meet NCLB benchmarks. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (likely to stay in his post for Pres. Obama’s second term) predicted that this year the percentage of schools missing the rising AYP benchmark could be as high as 80%, especially in the subgroup of children with disabilities. In New Jersey in 2011, 51% of schools missed the cut-off for Adequate Yearly Progress.

More time granted

Congress acted swiftly and decisively. Just kidding! Congress hasn’t done anything at all, even though reauthorization of NCLB was due four years ago. This inaction opened the door for Sec. Duncan to offer waivers from the strictures of NCLB. In order to get a waiver, each state must write up an application that includes plans to increase the rigor of curriculum by adopting the new national Common Core and, also, implement clear accountability standards for students and teachers. In a nifty bit of education reform finagling (or a stick to complement the waiver-carrot) state application waivers are also judged on adherence to tenets like tenure reform, infusion of teacher evaluations with student growth data, and turning around persistently failing schools.

Who could refuse such an offer? To date, 32 states plus D.C. have received waivers. Including New Jersey, which jumped in during the first round last year. Here’s a sample from N.J.’s 392-page waiver application, which was developed collaboratively with N.J.’s teacher unions.

Where N.J. ranks

“While in the aggregate New Jersey’s students perform at nation-leading levels, the State has a number of troubling deficiencies.

On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, New Jersey ranked 50 out of 51 States (including DC) in the size of the achievement gap between low and high-income students in 8th grade reading.

Tens of thousands of children attend schools where only a minority of students meets basic levels of proficiency in reading and math.

Across the State, over 40 percent of 3rd graders are not reading on grade level. And perhaps most alarmingly, a distressingly high percentage of those who do graduate from high school are unprepared for success: nearly 90 percent of students entering some of New Jersey’s community colleges require remediation.”

The N.J. plan to meet NCLB’s goals

New Jersey’s approved waiver divides the state’s 2,500 schools into four groups:

Priority Schools,

Focus Schools,

Reward Schools

Everyone else

Instead of uniform oversight from the N.J. DOE, Priority Schools – the bottom 5 percent, or the state’s 74 lowest-performing schools — will receive extra resources and monitoring through our new Regional Achievement Centers.

All schools will no longer be judged on absolute benchmarks but instead on student growth from year to year. The goal is to reduce the number of non-proficient students by 50 percent by 2016.

The new normal

How will it work? No one knows yet. But as more states apply for waivers, the reality of a federal reauthorization of the NCLB legislation becomes remote. Congress has plenty on its plate, including the looming fiscal cliff, threats of sequestration, and the indiscretions of CIA directors. Why bother with an education law that’s rapidly approaching obsolescence? States, including N.J., are happy, exuding enormous sighs of relief after the removal of NCLB’s overly punitive measures, not to mention the added elixir of the perception of local control.

Meanwhile, we’ll wait to see how well the N.J. Department of Education oversees its failing schools. In all fairness, NCLB gave us this gift: a sharply-pixilated image of the ignominious achievement gaps among subgroups. But can New Jersey remedy educational inequities through the mechanisms described in our waiver application? Nothing to do but wait and see.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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