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No Child Left Behind Waivers Spur State-Level Education Reforms

Published:  December 1, 2011

Eleven states just took one step closer to the post-No Child Left Behind era.

In the absence of Congressional action to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the law’s looming requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, the Obama administration announced in August that the U.S. Department of Education would permit states to waive the more punitive provisions of NCLB. In return, states must meet standards set forth by the administration. The deadline for a first round of waiver applications was November 14th, and eleven states filed applications. Unsurprisingly, each state’s application proposes different approaches to the same set of reform requirements.

Here are the stringent requirements states must meet to get a waiver. States must establish college- or career-readiness curriculum standards, design revised achievement goals for students, and overhaul teacher and principal evaluation processes. States submitting applications for this round are: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Another 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have expressed interest in applying for the second round by February.

In their proposals for revised achievement goals, a few states (Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, and New Jersey) stuck to a Department formula that would reformulate NCLB’s student proficiency goal. Those states will reduce by half the percentage of students who are not proficient in the “all students” group and in each subgroup within 6 years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no state chose to use a Department option that would allow them to maintain the 100 percent proficiency goal originally required under NCLB, with a reset timeline of the 2019-2020 school year.

But most states opted to create their own alternative goals rather than follow the Department’s formula. Those applications will have to be approved by reviewers outside the Department.

Georgia’s application, for example, would implement the College- and Career-Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), a plan that state officials have been working on for months. It will track state, district, school, teacher, and student progress by looking at achievement, attendance records, and student preparedness for higher grade levels to develop a more comprehensive picture of student progress. Colorado wants to use its Colorado Growth Model, a comprehensive database, to establish new proficiency targets. Florida proposed objectives using both its existing “school grading” system, which assigns a letter grade to each school, and performance targets based on student assessment results.

States also took some liberties in deciding how they will identify and improve low-performing schools, based largely on classification structures that the states already use.  Massachusetts would require the bottom four percent of schools to create a 6-year plan for improvement or risk takeover by the state. This program follows current state law, but identifies less than the application-mandated 5 percent of low-performing schools. As a result, the state will expand the program to name additional low-performing schools to reach the threshold. In contrast, Minnesota chose to shape its school turnaround efforts after the existing federal program. Its application says that it would use the Department of Education’s guidance, including the four School Improvement Grant turnaround models, to support its struggling schools.

Then there are the reform requirements. The administration set up the NCLB waiver requirements similarly to the Race to the Top (RttT) competitive grant program. Both applications required states to fulfill a number of education reforms, including incorporating student performance into teacher pay decisions and evaluations; adopting rigorous academic standards (including the Common Core standards); and eliminating any laws blocking linkages between student and teacher data.

Because most of the states that applied for NCLB waivers also applied for Race to the Top, many of the applicants have already taken the legislative and regulatory actions needed to support their applications. Four of the states – Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and Massachusetts – were Race to the Top winners, and policymakers in other states – New Jersey, Iowa, and Michigan, among others – are using the NCLB waiver requirements to spur state legislatures to action (the Department has specified that it will provide a grace period for governors and legislatures to make any necessary changes).

As the eleven applicants wait for decisions from the Department of Education reviewers, they can take solace in one thing: Department of Education officials say  they don’t want to throw out applications that aren’t up to par, so they intend to work with states to improve and ultimately approve the applications. In the meantime, many of the other states interested in applying for the waivers have a lot of work ahead of them to catch up to the Department’s prescriptive conditions.

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