The Obama Administration released its plan for the future of No Child Left Behind. In the absence of new legislation to fix the the original bill’s demands, so the vast majority of public schools – around 80 percent – don’t get failing grades under the current standards of proficiency, the Department of Education will issue waivers to public schools that meet a particular set of guidelines.

These guidelines will be familiar to anyone who followed the “Race to the Top” competitive grant program.  Only this time, instead of the carrot of increased funds in exchange for reform, this would be a stick – a failing grade under NCLB, and a loss of funds – in exchange.

Here’s the official release from the White House:

States can request flexibility from specific NCLB mandates that are stifling reform, but only if they are transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned with college- and career-ready standards for all students, developing differentiated accountability systems, and undertaking reforms to support effective classroom instruction and school leadership.

“To help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change. The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level,” President Obama said [...]

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “We want to get out of the way and give states and districts flexibility to develop locally-tailored solutions to their educational challenges while protecting children and holding schools accountable for better preparing young people for college and careers.”

Side note: does Arne Duncan ever say anything that is not a cliche?

The White House claims that this is only necessary because NCLB was not altered by Congress. But I think they’re not too unhappy about that. This allows them another lever to force states to inaugurate education reforms they’ve been pushing since coming into office. What are those reforms? According to the fact sheet, they include:

• “Transitioning to College- and Career-Ready Standards and Assessments” – Not sure who decides what constitutes college- and career-ready standards here, but the subject areas include “reading/language arts and mathematics.” At the root, this is about ensuring the administration of statewide tests.

• “Developing Systems of Differentiated Recognition, Accountability, and Support” – Again, lots of buzzwords here, but this essentially is about overhauling “failing” schools.

For a State’s lowest–performing schools — Priority schools, generally, those in the bottom 5 percent — a district will implement rigorous interventions to turn the schools around. In an additional 10 percent of the State’s schools — Focus Schools, identified due to low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance — the district will target strategies designed to focus on students with the greatest needs.

• “Evaluating and Supporting Teacher and Principal Effectiveness” – This is about merit pay, even if it doesn’t make it explicit. It forces schools who get the waiver to “set basic guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.” They acknowledge that the evaluation can come from multiple sources and not just student performance, but I think the implications are clear.

School administrators are generally OK with the waiver requirements, and I find that obvious, since the consequences of being saddled with failing schools are greater. The fact that Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is against it is actually a point in their favor.

But Margaret Spellings, education secretary under President George W. Bush, said she worries about backsliding. “I’m skeptical about states’ ability or will to do great reform or close the achievement gap,” she said. “The reason this whole waiver issue is before us is [the states] told us they were going to do something and didn’t do it. And now they want a waiver against their own promises.”

“We need more accountability, not less,” Spellings added. “Implicit in this situation is the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect children to perform on grade level and we need to find a way to let the adults get out of that.”

Actually, implicit in this situation is that Congress failed to do its job to modify standards that were impossible for schools to reach, especially given chronic underfunding from the feds.

But I’m not sure a solution that forces one-sided changes to how local school districts educate kids and compensate workers, or suffer consequences, is all that much better.