On Education Week blog, curriculum analyst blasts No Child Left Behind waivers

 Rick Hess, a well known education curriculum analyst, has blasted the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “waiver” program announced last week.

In a blog posting on the Education Week website, he characterized much
of the content of last week’s unveiling by U.S. Secretary of Education
Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama as “a shameless display.”

Hess pointed to one statement from the president: "After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my Administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility."

Hess wrote, “let’s just stipulate that President Obama and the folks at the Department of Education are good people who want to help kids. But that doesn’t excuse an exercise that struck me as hypocritical, graceless, and troubling.”

Hess said several things “about this latest spin of the waiver saga” struck him as “particularly disconcerting.”

Hess clearly shares widespread reservations that the Obama administration has legal power to grant waivers from NCLB without congressional authority. He said Duncan and the President assumed powers “to not merely grant selected waivers but to impose wholly new requirements that exist nowhere in federal law.”

The writer said he was “struck .. by the sheer number and scope of conditions that Duncan cheerfully imposed. These new requirements included, according to the White House release: ‘states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback … they must set new performance targets for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps. They also must have accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains.’”

Hess said he had “trouble reconciling this list with the President’s proclamation” that “We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return…Because what might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky."

He described Secretary Duncan’s communications to the ten states receiving waivers, including Oklahoma, as “complicated, jargon-laden, finger-wagging letters” that demonstrate “just how prescriptive the process is. In fact, I don’t think the extent of the new demands – and the limited flexibility granted – will be clear for weeks, at best. It’ll require patient observers to wade through the requests, letters, conditions, and so on. Just for starters, it would appear that the waiver ‘winners’ just promised to adopt narrow, prescriptive teacher evaluation and school improvement policies that apply to charter schools as well as district schools – but not even charter authorities are entirely clear on how this will play out in reality or if these commitments should be taken any more seriously than so many empty promises in the Race to the Top applications.”

Hess continued, writing he found “remarkably graceless the way in which the administration chest-thumpingly blamed the waivers on congressional inaction, while taking no responsibility for the slow pace of ESEA [Elementary and Secretary Education Act] re-authorization (much less acknowledging that it dawdled for 14 months with a Democratic Congress before ever introducing its initial ESEA blueprint.’) The White House gleefully declared, ‘The administration’s decision to provide waivers followed extensive efforts to work with Congress to rewrite NCLB.’ This may come as news to those GOP edu-staff who complained persistently throughout 2009 and 2010 that they couldn’t get the Department to give them the time of day. The history added irony to the President declaring, with less respect for the U.S. Constitution than I might expect from a law professor, ‘After waiting far too long for Congress to act, I announced that my administration would take steps to reform No Child Left Behind on our own.’”

The analyst was “unimpressed by the way in which the administration – even as it criticized Congress for failing to act – went out of its way to steal attention from House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline’s long-scheduled introduction of two bills crucial to moving NCLB reauthorization. It’s hard to take seriously an administration that complains about congressional inaction and then counter-programs so as to minimize attention to congressional action.”

Perhaps his most pointed comment aimed at state officials was that he was “struck (and not favorably) by the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’-ness of it all. Watching governors and state chiefs go to the administration on bended knee and hustle to comply with its various demands, out of desperation to escape the more destructive elements of NCLB, doesn’t strike me as good for democratic government or school improvement.”

Hess concluded what can only be characterized as a boldly and bluntly critical analysis of the NCLB waivers by writing “I found it patronizing when the President mused …, ‘So Massachusetts, for example, has set a goal to cut the number of under-performing students in half over the next six years. I like that goal!’ Or, ‘Florida has set a goal to have their test scores rank among the top five states in the country, and the top 10 countries in the world. I like that ambition!’ I’m sure it makes me old-school, but I prefer it when the President doesn’t treat governors or respected state chiefs as so many ruddy-cheeked toddlers competing for his approval.”