Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vermont and NCLB Waivers: Student Learning or Power Politics?

In order to understand the Vermont NCLB waiver application you have to understand the waiver process itself.  An op ed in the Times Argus recently critiqued certain features of the state’s application, including emphasis on high stakes testing, and failure to address poverty as a factor in low student achievement, but the waiver process is a Federal policy of the United States Department of Education.
To understand waivers you also have to take into account the power dynamics in Washington.  There is an ongoing effort by Congressional Republicans to block virtually every Obama administration initiative.  The Republicans strive to deny the administration a signature domestic policy achievement during an election year, even though an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization has been the first term hallmark of virtually every administration since LBJ.  The last re-authorization happened in 2001 during the Bush administration.  We know this iteration as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
I believe the Obama administration put ESEA on the back burner for a variety of valid reasons.  There was the possibility of bipartisanship.  They expended political capital on fixing the economy, on wars, on health insurance reform, and embedded a major education policy initiative in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – Race to the Top (RTT).  RTT was a highly successful competitive grant program which leveraged states to make wholesale education policy changes at a very modest cost – just four billion dollars. 
Against the background of severe revenue problems in almost every state, RTT moved policy in significant ways even in states that did not receive grants.  For example, Vermont’s State Board of Education adopted Common Core Standards along with 45 other states and joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop a new generation of tests for Common Core.  But we did not even apply for RTT.  The results of RTT were well nigh astonishing.  Seldom has so much change been achieved for so little federal money.
NCLB waivers are a continuation of RTT.  There is enough similarity between the requirements of the two programs to make this assertion.  For example, the adoption of College and Career Ready Standards (Common Core meets this requirement) and the adoption of new teacher accountability systems that take into account test scores in some way are salient features of both programs.  So Vermont’s waiver application makes perfect sense – these are requirements for a waiver.  If you don’t meet the requirements, you don’t get a waiver.
The difference between the programs is rather than dangling cash in front of revenue starved states like RTT, the waiver program dangles regulatory relief from the NCLB ticking time bomb of 100% student proficiency on tests by 2014, a statistical impossibility that will label virtually every school as failing and subject them to a draconian set of restructuring requirements, including firing their teachers and their administrators.
In essence, the Obama/Duncan administration is doing a political end run around a recalcitrant and uncooperative Congress.  In my view, the whole thing has a lot more to do with Washington power politics and whole lot less to do with student learning.  If states adopt the basic tenets of the “Blueprint”, the Obama/Duncan plan for ESEA reauthorization, wholesale via RTT and waivers, then the ESEA becomes moot, and the administration has won the political battle for education reform without firing a shot. An ESEA reauthorization, if it occurs, will merely be codification of changes led at the state level.   It is an audacious political strategy.
Why is student learning jeopardized in this scenario?  Waivers assume that all states have a similar capacity to assimilate these policies.  I found it interesting that states like Massachusetts and Colorado already have waivers in hand.  The former was a round 2 RTT state that has a huge jumpstart on the work.  The latter is a state noted for pioneering many of the innovations that are becoming embedded in Federal education policy.  In Vermont we are starting from scratch.  Ten years of slash and burn budgeting during the Douglas administration have reduced our DOE to a shell of its former self, a compliance agency for Federal formula grants.  Whatever little capacity to respond to national policy is left is embedded in outside organizations like VT-NEA.
We are left asking permission.  Instead of treating the waiver process as an opportunity to rethink systems, we treat the waiver application like a bunch of hoops to jump through - hardly a way to make effective policy.  And student learning is left out of the equation.
The great danger here is that our legislature will panic and do something nonsensical, like New York or Tennessee did around teacher evaluation.  Our legislature has a history of doing that sort of thing at the eleventh hour – things like the “two vote mandate.”  I hope instead that our leaders think about how to bring together people with interest and expertise in great education policy to rebuild Vermont’s capacity so that we can not only respond effectively to the national policy context, but learn to lead it.


  1. Nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire schools have been tagged as “in need or improvement” based on NCLB standards. After last year’s round of annual testing in math and reading, 307 of the state’s 469 public schools, or 65 percent were labeled as failing. (Brindley, 2011). This is why it is important for New Hampshire to seek to apply for this waiver, because the waiver would also help in establishing college and career-ready standards, along with coming up with ways to intervene in low-performing schools. A waiver would give states the chance to develop their own accountability systems, and hopefully turn the tides on the increasing amount of “schools in need of improvement”.

    1. Thanks for writing Ben. Any state that has adopted the Common Core has fulfilled the College and Career Ready waiver requirement, and New Hampshire has adopted the Common Core. States can always develop their own accountability standards - do you really think that accountability standards with these particular Federal strings attached will serve New Hampshire better?

  2. On The Other Hand...

    One thing that we do know is that a majority of state school funding is derived from the federal government and is allocated in accordance with each school’s adhesion to the NCLB. If this law were to be removed, then the state would suffer job losses, especially in the area of student tutoring services. The problem with these proposed bills is that it eliminates accountability of schools, teachers and union performance. The only winners here are those who don't want to be held accountable to any standards other than their own. I suppose the only true way to determine whether opting out of the NCLB is possible would be to run a cost/benefit analysis of the federal funding we receive, to determine if we could even theoretically walk away from it. In addition, the state would need to come together collectively as a whole, to help fill in the gap, by determining its own state specific standards, which hold schools accountable for student academic progress. The key component, which always needs to remain in play, is student academic performance.

    1. Actually, the federal government only funds about 8 cents on the dollar. I understand there have been three studies here in VT and at least one nationally that provide evidence that it actually costs more to capture ESEA dollars than the themselves dollars are worth. Whether I agree with you about student academic performance depends on what you mean - is this a euphemism for test scores? I prefer the term student learning. I believe that student learning must be the focus of all reform efforts.