Washington and Sacramento must end Cold War on education

April 29, 2013

Louis Freedberg

 

Some high level diplomacy is called for to end the Cold War between Sacramento and Washington that has frozen out the state from benefiting from the major education initiatives of President Obama’s education reform agenda.

The administration has awarded 34 states and the District of Columbia waivers from onerous provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation signed into law a decade ago by Obama’s predecessor.

But the administration has rejected California’s request for a waiver from the law – the same one that President Barack Obama has criticized during most of the time he has been in office.

Instead, his administration has left California to implement a law that his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described as a “slow-motion train wreck” that “serves as a disincentive to higher standards, rather than as an incentive.”

The administration is currently considering a separate waiver application from a consortium of nine school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco and Oakland, with a combined enrollment of more than 1 million children. But even if the waiver is granted, the vast majority of school children, and districts, would still be left laboring under the old law.

Still in effect is the unattainable NCLB provision that will require every student in California to be “proficient” on standardized tests by next year.

California could meet that goal by simply lowering its standards. But it has, rightly, refused to do so.

That means that ever-growing numbers of schools serving low-income students will be effectively labeled as “failures” – in need of “program improvement” – under the NCLB law. At the latest count, there were 4,402 of them in California.

The administration’s rejection of California’s waiver follows the state’s near shut out from President Obama’s signature education initiative, the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. California has been awarded a mere $50 million from the fund, despite having one in eight public school children in the nation.

What’s more, those funds were designated for only three school districts serving about 20,000 students – out of 6.2 million in the state.

President Obama declared that the guiding principle for his waiver program would be to give states flexibility in implementing it. But in return he is demanding that to get the waiver every school – nearly 10,000 of them – must meet many new requirements that weren’t even in the original law.

The most publicized sticking point is requiring each of the state’s nearly 10,000 schools to introduce a new way of evaluating teachers. The new evaluation system must include “as a significant factor” measures of “student growth for all students including English learners and special education students.”

The administration says districts can used “multiple formats and sources” to measure growth, including “rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys.”

It’s obvious that better teaching leads to better learning outcomes. But there is no assurance that the evaluation system being demanded by the administration will be more effective than the NCLB law has been in closing the achievement gap.

The administration’s plan could help remove some of the least effective teachers from the classroom. But whether it will drastically improve student outcomes for the majority of California’s students is unknown.

Overshadowed by the controversy over teacher evaluation is the additional requirement that California devise an entirely new, and untested, system of “priority schools,” “focus schools” and “reward schools” to “differentiate” schools based on based on student performance. Without additional support from Washington, the state would be required to provide “incentives and supports” to “ensure continuous improvement” of the lowest-performing schools.

It is time for a reset of California’s relations with Washington on the education front. The Obama and Brown administrations should initiate discussions at the highest levels to figure out a way for California to receive a waiver from the NCLB law. California’s congressional leadership should do whatever it can to facilitate these discussions.

It is too late for California to get more than the sliver of Race to the Top funds it has already received. But the administration’s rejection of California’s NCLB waiver request is too important an issue to accept without further urgent efforts on both sides to reach a resolution.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource. 

A version of this commentary first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 28, 2013. 

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