WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama, citing four years of Congressional gridlock on education reform, announced Friday a waiver program for states to opt out of testing thresholds outlined in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
While education officials in Maine welcomed the news, some cautioned that the requirements for obtaining a waiver from NCLB won’t be easy to attain.
“This certainly is welcome,” said Steven Bowen, Maine’s education commissioner. “Everywhere I went this spring through as recently as this week, in schools there has been frustration with the existing federal law we’ve been under. It has really hamstrung our ability to do some things within our schools.”
The number of Maine schools lagging behind NCLB standards will increase drastically this year and might double in some areas. Schools that don’t meet increasingly rising thresholds in test scores and attendance rates for two years running fall into a status called “Continuous Improvement Priority Schools.” CIPS schools are required to devote a portion of their budgets to working with the Department of Education toward improvements such as redesigning curriculum and training staff.
The Department of Education doesn’t have up-to-date tallies of how many Maine schools are in CIPS status, according to spokesman David Connerty-Marin, but officials earlier this year said the number of under-performing Title 1 schools — those that receive federal funding because of poverty levels — might increase from about 50 to more than 120 statewide. The ranks of lagging schools will undoubtedly increase in the coming years as NCLB’s mandate of bringing 100 percent of students to proficiency in a range of areas by 2014 approaches.
As Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster, an outspoken critic of NCLB put it, “we were on a collision course to nothing but failure across the country.”
At the core of Obama’s plan is new flexibility in terms of how schools measure student, teacher and administrator achievement; what programs schools develop to improve student achievement; and how schools use federal funding for innovative programming. The trade-off is that to obtain a waiver from NCLB standards, states will be required to develop plans to meet those assessment and curriculum goals, which is no easy task.
“I think the program we’re working on here is probably a 2-year project,” said Webster. “That’s a long time in terms of getting a waiver application done.”
Some people don’t agree. Maine School Superintendents Association board President Michael Cormier, who is a superintendent for Farmington-area schools, said there is progress being made on these goals in a variety of national, state and local programs.
“Many of the things that are being required [in Obama’s waiver program] are things that most schools are already struggling to have in place,” said Cormier. “The devil is always in the details, but I say the more that can be done at the state level, the better.”
Bowen said he expects the Department of Education to work closely with local officials to develop accountability and assessment processes for teachers and students. He said he envisions much of the work to be led by the Department of Education in collaboration with local officials while allowing enough flexibility for individual districts to pursue their own ideas.
“How that looks, I don’t know right now,” he said. “My guess is that [the federal government] is going to want some indicator or assurance that the districts are all on board with this. Once we dig into the meat of this thing it will tell us how much do we have to change.”
Rob Liebow, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, said developing more accurate assessment methods — as opposed to measuring students by their performance on a single standardized test — will eliminate unfairness.
“A single test on a single day is not a fair reflection of what’s going on in a school,” he said. “There are a lot of variables with individual students.”
Obama said education reform is the cornerstone of his plan to improve the economy and create more jobs.
“As a nation we have an obligation to make sure our children have the resources they need to learn,” said Obama during a briefing at the White House on Friday. “The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable. Higher standards are the right goal … but No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children. Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test. In order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states have been forced to reverse their standards.”
Obama said the core of his reform is to allow states to develop their own measures for improving student achievement, an approach that was modeled in his “Race to the Top” initiative.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability,” said Obama. “States can now set their own standards. We’ve got to act now and harness all the good ideas coming out of our states and our schools. We just have to make sure that we can figure out what works and hold ourselves to those high standards.”