President Obama sounded like the king of flexibility when he announced that his administration was granting 10 states the right to ignore the most onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind. “Sounded” is the key word in that sentence.

Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are the first states to win the controversial waivers, Obama announced Thursday, but there is a catch. Instead of following the law that was president George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, the states had to agree to follow the key education reforms championed by Obama’s Education Department. States are swapping one president’s education vision for another, and both involve the overuse of high-stakes standardized tests.

Obama didn’t make it sound that way, of course. He said, in part:

“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones. Standards and accountability — those are the right goals. Closing the achievement gap, that’s a good goal. That’s the right goal. We’ve got to stay focused on those goals. But we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures. That doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help our children in the classroom.”

Obama has it right: It doesn’t help our children or our schools. But what he did not acknowledge, or perhaps doesn’t recognize, is that his administration’s policies — including the process in which states received these waivers — don’t help matters at all and in some cases make them worse.

Along with the 10 states granted waivers Thursday, 30 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signaled that they will submit waiver applications.

There’s no question that states need relief from No Child Left Behind. The decade-old law was supposed to lead to an end of the achievement gap, but it didn’t. Instead, it , created new problems for states by requiring that virtually all students score proficient on math and reading scores by 2014.

Even the authors of NCLB knew when they were writing it that the 2014 requirement of math and reading proficiency for allwas impossible to reach, but they thought it was a worthy goal and that by 2014 , Congress would have done something to change it. It didn’t, and as the deadline nears, many schools around the country are facing unfair punishments for failing to reach the goal.

As a result, the administration announced last year it would grant states waivers from the 2014 mandate, as well as some other NCLB requirements.

But instead of offering states the right to opt out of the 2014 goal, the administration said they would grant waivers only to those states that did what they wanted in terms of school reform. And the Education Department’s reforms have done nothing to limit damaging high-stakes standardized testing, but instead exacerbated the problem by encouraging states to evaluate teachers in part by student test scores, a scheme assessment experts say is invalid.

The National School Board Association and the American Association of School Administrators said it well in a joint letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan last fall: “State and local education agencies are not at all responsible for reauthorizing the federal statute, and as such should not have to jump through hoops to get relief from specific provisions widely recognized as broken and in need of improvement.”

And hoops are what states had to jump through. To get the waivers, states had to promise to implement college- and career-ready standards for students, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, create evaluation systems for teachers and principals that include standardized test scores as one measure, and find ways to reward top-performing schools and intervene with those at the bottom of the achievement scale.

Letters from the Education Department to most of the states that received waivers, obtained by the Associated Press, show the level of detail that federal officials required of states in order to win a waiver.

For example, in a December letter to Massachusetts officials, the department said about the state’s waiver application:

“* The lack of safeguards in Massachusetts’ differentiated recognition, accountability and support systems to ensure that there is appropriate attention and action in schools when an individual subgroup is struggling over a number of years, and;

“*Insufficient incentives to improve achievement for all groups of students and narrow achievement gaps between subgroups in Title 1 schools not identified as priority or focus schools.”

Obama got kudos for the “flexibility” he offered states from lots of people in Washington. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said “this flexibility presents an opportunity to ensure our students are ready to compete not only for the jobs of today but also the jobs of tomorrow.”

Now that’s some kind of “flexibility.”


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