Obama Grants Waivers to NCLB and Makes a Bad Situation Worse

The president rightly says that NCLB forces teaching to the test. But so do his solutions, writes Diane Ravitch.

Secretary Arne Duncan is right about the No Child Left Behind law: It is an unmitigated disaster. Signed into law a decade ago by President George W. Bush, NCLB is widely despised for turning schools into testing factories. By mandating that every student in the nation would be “proficient” by 2014, as judged by state tests, it set a goal that no nation in the world has ever met, and that no state in this nation is close to meeting. The goal is laudable but out of reach. It’s comparable to Congress mandating that every city, town, and village in the nation must be crime-free by 2014 ... or their police departments would be severely punished.

NCLB is the worst federal education law ever passed. About half of all public schools in the nation have been stigmatized as “failing” because they couldn’t meet its utopian mandates, and the proportion is certain to grow every year. In Massachusetts, the nation’s highest performing state, 81 percent of the state’s schools are officially “failing” by the standards of NCLB. No national legislature in history has ever designed a law that resulted in the shaming of most of its public schools.

Since Congress has failed to reach agreement on the reauthorization of NCLB, Secretary Duncan has offered waivers to those states eager to escape the whip of NCLB, but only to those states willing to accept his ideas about school reform. Eleven states applied, and 10 received waivers. More are expected to apply for a waiver in the future.

No one seems to recall that NCLB is George W. Bush administration’s title for what was originally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. ESEA was passed during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, specifically to direct federal aid to schools that enrolled poor children. Its central purpose was equity, not global competition. It was certainly not contemplated at the time that the law would become a club with which to beat up and close the schools that enroll large numbers of poor children.

President Obama said that the waivers were necessary because the law was “driving the wrong behaviors, from teaching to the test to federally determined, one-size-fits-all interventions.” But what neither the president nor Secretary Duncan admits is that Duncan’s mandates will promote even more teaching to the test, while posing a heavy fiscal burden on the states at a time when they are strapped for cash.

Governor Jerry Brown decided that California would not apply for a waiver, because he wanted relief from federal regulatory burdens without preconditions. Brown has been outspoken in his criticism of testing, which is out of control in California and across the nation because of NCLB. In addition, California’s State Department of Instruction estimated that it would cost $2.5-$3.1 billion to comply with Duncan’s requirements for a waiver.

The states that won a waiver must agree to accept the Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum in mathematics and English language arts developed by nongovernment groups that has yet to be field-tested anywhere; they must agree to evaluate teachers and principals based in large part on the test scores of their students; and they must agree to intervene forcefully in the lowest-performing schools. At the same time, the Obama administration is promoting merit pay, so teachers whose students get higher test scores will be paid more.

The sum of all these changes means that test scores will matter even more in the states with waivers than in the states oppressed by NCLB’s heavy-handed regulations. Teachers will be evaluated based on whether their students’ scores rise or fall. Testing experts agree that gains in student scores will be smallest for teachers of children with disabilities and children who are English language learners and probably greatest for those teaching children in relatively affluent districts. In other words, those who teach children with the greatest needs are likeliest to get a bad evaluation and eventually fired. This will add to the already high level of teacher turnover in the neediest districts.

The schools with the lowest test scores—the ones targeted for “intervention”—will be overwhelmingly located in poor neighborhoods, because poverty is highly associated with low test scores. The principals and teachers of many of these schools will be fired, and their schools may be closed. Many of these low-performing public schools will be turned over to private management, since the Obama administration and conservative governors alike believe in the power of deregulation and privatization in education. Some states will promote vouchers as a reform. Students in the most vulnerable communities will find that their neighborhood public school has been shuttered, and they will be sent elsewhere, all in the name of school reform.

The fact that privately managed charters and vouchers do not consistently improve student test scores or provide better education does not quench the zeal with which their advocates support them.

One thing that the waivers will not end is teaching to the test, even though President Obama said in his State of the Union that teachers should stop doing it. With so many districts and states endorsing merit pay (at the Obama administration’s urging), teachers who want a bonus will be compelled to teach to the test. And with the careers of teachers and principals hinging on test scores, teachers who want to remain employed will be compelled to teach to the test. To avoid having their school fall into the pit of those marked for drastic “intervention” or closing, schools will concentrate as never before on teaching to the test.

What teachers will not be able to do is to teach with “creativity and passion,” as the president also recommended in his State of the Union. Anyone who ignores the test scores of their students puts their job and the future of their school at risk. This is the madness now known as school reform. Future historians will no doubt consider this era to be a time when public education was subjected to an unending series of bad policies, an era in which the quality of education was sacrificed to an unquenchable passion for testing and accountability.