Many parents in Washington state are being told that their public schools are being considered as failing — even though it isn’t true. They are learning this from the superintendents of their school districts, who don’t want to do it but are being forced to. What’s going on?
Last April, the U.S. Education Department yanked from the state the waiver it had received exempting it from the most onerous parts of the No Child Left Behind law. The department offered the waivers to states several years ago after Congress failed to do its job and rewrite the bill that nearly everybody believed was severely flawed.
But instead of giving strings-free waivers, the department designed a list of school-reform hoops that states had to promise to jump through in order to receive one. Those included the establishment of assessment systems that link teacher evaluations to student standardized-test scores, a highly controversial practice. Washington’s legislature had followed through with some of its promises to the department but did not take the required action on evaluations last spring. So the state became the first to have its waiver withdrawn, with the promise of reconsideration should it find a way to do what the Obama administration wants.
There is a consequence to having an NCLB waiver pulled. It means that the state has to revert back to meeting all of the requirements of the law —even those requirements that Education Secretary Arne Duncan himself had said repeatedly were unattainable. The most onerous of these are the performance goals, which called for nearly all students to be “proficient” on reading and math standardized-test scores by 2014 through a process known as “annual yearly progress” or AYP. That goal was impossible to reach, as even the authors of NCLB knew, but it was thought that the law would be rewritten in 2007, when it technically expired. It has remained in force, awaiting congressional action, even though it became clear over the years that because of AYP’s flawed process, nearly all of the schools in the country would be considered failing by 2014.
Schools that don’t make AYP (and that would be nearly all of them in Washington’s 295 districts) are considered to be failing and must change in specific ways as spelled out by the NCLB. In a letter Duncan sent to Washington state, he noted that returning to full compliance “is not desirable” and won’t “be simple.” But he was making them do it, anyway.
So now superintendents in Washington are sending out letters to parents telling them their children’s schools are failing —while at the same time assuring them that they really aren’t. Superintendents from 28 Washington school districts signed a letter to parents (see below) criticizing the process forcing them to send the letters.
If all of this seems convoluted, that’s only because it is. Just like a lot of school reform these days.
Here’s the superintendents’ letter, and following that is Duncan’s letter to Washington state:
Here’s the original Duncan letter: