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Feds Get Flexible with NCLB

Today the White House provided a framework for how states could be relieved of some of the onerous federal restrictions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 revamp of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In return for the softer approach, states must prove they're working hard to improve the education they're delivering to their students and that it's having an impact on results. That proof will focus on three areas: showing how they're helping students, teachers, and schools make the transition to college- and career-ready standards; developing accountability systems; and tackling reforms in classroom instruction and school leadership. Otherwise, states face the prospect of losing federal education funding.

The new "flexibility package," as it's been named by the United States Department of Education, takes effect starting with the 2011-2012 school year. States must notify the Department of Education by Oct. 12, 2011 if they intend to request flexibility. Then they'll have two windows in which to submit their applications:

  • November 14, 2011 for December 2011 peer review;
  • Mid-February 2012 for a spring 2012 review.

The 26-page request document is located at the Department of Education Web site.

In many ways the flexibility package is a slap to Congress for its inaction in the area of education reform. It has been nearly 10 years since NCLB was put into action. Typically, the specifics of the Education Act, upon which NCLB is based, are reviewed, revised, and renewed every five years by Congress. That hasn't happened since the original law was passed. This latest round of changes will allow states to go forward with their own measures until Congress has reauthorized the Education Act. As the Department of Education noted, however, Congress may choose to reauthorize the Education Act as it's already written, in which case the waivers granted to states may have to be rescinded.

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"To help states, districts, and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change," said President Obama in a statement. "The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."

With this round of changes participating states will gain relief in three areas of NCLB:

  • Flexibility regarding the 2013-2014 timeline for achieving 100 percent proficiency: The target for having all students "proficient" in reading and math as defined by state standards goes away. Now, states will have flexibility to establish "ambitious but achievable goals."
  • Flexibility regarding district and school improvement and accountability requirements: The concept of "failing" schools goes away (to be replaced by other designations, to be sure). States will be able to develop their own approaches for identifying and working with the lowest-performing schools. They'll also be able to recognize and reward schools that are the highest-achieving and those where students are making the most progress.
  • Flexibility related to the use of federal education funds: Although funding to meet the needs of particular populations of students will still be protected, states, districts, and schools will be able to allocate funding streams as they choose rather than by federal definition.

With bipartisan support NCLB went into effect as law at the beginning of 2002 to declare heightened standards for public education. Part of its mandate was to force schools to prove that progress was happening through test scores. Those tests are set by each state and standardized among all public schools in that state. If schools can't show "adequate yearly progress" in test scores year by year, they're put on increasingly stringent improvement programs.

NCLB came with the lure of increased education funding, which rose overall to $70 billion in 2011 from $42 billion in 2001.

While NCLB forced schools to address achievement gaps and increased accountability for high-need students, according to the Department of Ed, it also encouraged states to lower their standards and narrow curriculum in order to show gains on the tests. NCLB focused on test scores as the final arbiter of student growth. It also called for a one-size-fits-all approach, which began to strangle the efforts of state education administrators.

Behind the scenes, states have led what the Department of Ed is calling a "quiet revolution" to shift the momentum away from NCLB and toward their own visions of progress. These reforms have included widespread adoption of state-defined college- and career-ready standards, development of new assessments, and other more customized transformations in school improvement programs, teacher and principal evaluation, and professional development. For example, under the new, more flexible structure, schools labeled as "in need of improvement" under NCLB will be judged by other measures than just test scores.

Those states that choose not to request the flexibility changes or that lack a plan for improvement will still be bound by current law, the Department of Ed said.

"We want to get out of the way and give states and districts flexibility to develop locally-tailored solutions to their educational challenges while protecting children and holding schools accountable for better preparing young people for college and careers," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Designed with input from chief state school officers from 45 states, the flexibility package grants waivers from NCLB requirements for states that address three areas:

  • Transitioning to college- and career-ready standards and assessments: A state must have already adopted standards in reading/language arts and mathematics designed to raise the achievement of all students, including English learners and students with disabilities. The state must commit to helping its schools and districts shift to those standards, including administering statewide tests that align with the college and career standards.
  • Developing systems of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support: States must establish a "differentiated recognition, accountability and support system" that gives credit for progress towards readiness goals. That system includes a reward element to recognize the highest achieving schools that serve low-income students and those that show the greatest student progress, designating them as "Reward Schools." For the lowest-performing schools in a state, called "Priority Schools," (generally those in the bottom five percent), districts must implement rigorous interventions to turn the schools around. In "Focus Schools," those with low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance, districts must develop strategies to help students with the greatest needs.
  • Evaluating and supporting teacher and principal effectiveness: Each state must set basic guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems. The development of these systems calls for input from teachers and principals. Their purpose will be to appraise performance based on multiple measures, such as student progress over time and professional practices. The systems will also provide clear feedback to teachers on how to improve instruction.

Many states and districts are well on their way in implementing reform measures. The Department of Ed reported that 44 states have adopted common college and career-ready standards. Forty six states are developing high-quality assessments aligned to those standards. And at least 40 states are developing new accountability and support systems.

States will have to apply for waivers from NCLB through a formal application process, which is still in formation. In a frequently asked questions document on its Web site, the Department of Ed said it will use non-department education experts to develop a "transparent, rigorous peer review process." It also promises to post all state requests for flexibility online after the peer review is done.