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NCLB and waivers, what is going on?

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Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states could apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind. What does this mean?

The law, which has yet to be reauthorized in Congress even though it expired in 2007, has long been controversial – especially its goal that all students would be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools that consistently failed to meet ever-escalating targets have been required to undertake drastic reform measures, including what we are now calling turnaround.

As the goals get higher, more and more schools are failing to meet them, even if large numbers of their students are reaching the proficiency levels.

While some states are announcing their intention to apply for the waivers, at least one, Washington state, is so opposed to the law itself that it said it won't apply because such a move would give the law more credibility. A piece in the New York Times explains the outright rebellion among states and how, as a prelude to the waiver announcement, Duncan allowed Montana to retroactively reduce its proficiency targets so that fewer schools would be labeled "failures."

Diehard supporters of NCLB say that the law was important because it focused on achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups and focused the nation's attention on the need to adequately educate all students by "disaggregating the data." Many of the schools now objecting to being called "failing" are falling short among one or more demographic subgroups.

The law's skeptics point out that instead of raising standards, many states simply set low standards that more schools could meet, subverting the law's very purpose.

Waivers will be tied to states' agreement to adopt a certain set of reforms, which could set a very bad precedent, worries Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. Duncan said he would lay out the conditions for waivers in September.

What will Pennsylvania do? How would any waiver affect Philadelphia schools, more than half of which have at some point come under NCLB sanctions? More to the point, will Congress ever reform or replace NCLB?

No answers to those questions yet.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.