No Child Left Behind (NCLB) turned twelve this week, and with the anniversary, came the expected reflections from journalists, policy wonks, and advocates. Of course, this year holds special meaning—2014 was the law’s deadline for all students to reach proficiency in math and reading.

Given that 42 states and Washington, D.C. now have waivers freeing them from many of the law’s provisions, you might think that No Child Left Behind has been, well, left behind. That’s true in certain respects, but not in fundamentals. Remember, before NCLB, many states didn’t publish—let alone hold schools accountable for—the performance of their disadvantaged students. This was a huge feat, and one that has forever changed what we know about student learning and the quality of schools and educators.

And this feat isn’t diminished by the existence of NCLB waivers, or the stagnation of efforts to reauthorize NCLB. Charles Barone, of Democrats for Education Reform, may have put it best:

All states still retain key provisions from NCLB, particularly a focus on student academic performance for at-risk subgroups and a goal of narrowing achievement gaps. Moreover, political support for those provisions from advocacy, business, and civil rights groups is stronger now than when NCLB was signed into law.

The challenge of passing a law that forced that type of scrutiny of underperforming schools was just as tough as the challenges facing current reform efforts on issues like standards, assessments, choice, teacher evaluation, and tenure. And the political fights are just as worthy and winnable. The lesson from NCLB is that those pushing back may change the pace of education reform, but not its inexorable march forward.

Reform may be marching forward, but two recent reports reveal new challenges on the road ahead (and no, it’s not Congressional gridlock). On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education released the first of its Part B Monitoring reports for six waiver states (CO, CT, DE, ID, MS, and NY). The reports, based on phone conversations and site visits with state officials, provide some of the first glimpses into how waiver implementation is unfolding, as well as specific next steps for states hoping to extend their waivers an additional year (reminder: extensions are due February 28). While four states had previously been placed on “high-risk” largely over issues with their educator evaluation systems, the latest monitoring is the first time the Department has highlighted problems in how states are handling the transition to new standards, assessments, and accountability systems.

The verdict? They’re not handling it very well. PoliticsK12 has a complete run-down of the red flags identified, many of which involve accountability for “priority” and “focus” schools—typically, the bottom 15 percent of schools in a state. In fact, only Colorado escaped specific “to do” items to improve the treatment of these low-performing schools. Specifically, Delaware, Idaho, and Mississippi were not ensuring that focus schools designed improvement plans that adequately addressed the reasons leading to their identification in the first place (e.g. large white-black achievement gaps, low performance for special education and low-income students, etc.).

Even worse, priority schools in Idaho, Mississippi, and New York may have failed to implement some, or most, of the comprehensive turnaround principles specified in the waiver policy altogether. In other words, some schools were priority in name only. The problem appears to be most acute in Idaho and Mississippi, and for priority schools that did not receive a School Improvement Grant (SIG). States must identify these non-compliant priority schools to the U.S. Department of Education, and states will start the improvement clock for them anew in 2014-15, instead of placing them in their third (and possibly, final) year of turnaround.

This is a big deal. By not following through with their promises, states may have squandered two years of support for chronically low-achieving schools and the chance to improve student results there. And it will be critical for the Department to hold states accountable for correcting course and addressing these problems quickly—even if it means threatening to revoke a waiver.

While the six Part B reports found fewer problems among priority schools that receive SIG funding, a new Mathematica study also calls into question interventions for SIG schools around operational autonomy, turnaround support, and state monitoring. By comparing SIG schools to similar schools that did not win an award, the researchers found that SIG schools were not all that different from non-SIG ones. Across 12 kinds of improvement supports states could provide, only three of the strategies were significantly more common in SIG schools than non-SIG schools: selecting turnaround strategies, identifying effective school leaders, and using data. SIG schools were no more likely to receive help in terms of working with parents, planning for school improvement, or teacher recruitment. This only adds to the mixed, albeit preliminary and flawed, data on student achievement in SIG schools.

Both reports are particularly troubling in light of what did change when NCLB was replaced by NCLB waivers. The Department’s new theory of action led states to adopt relative forms of school accountability in their waiver plans—meaning fewer schools would be identified as low-performing, but states would have to increase the rigor of interventions to improve them. If these new reports are any indication, however, states may not be holding up the second half of the bargain.

To be clear, I’m not arguing NCLB got school improvement right. The law was rigid and provided loopholes for schools to escape significant changes in structure, governance, and instruction. But with growing evidence that school turnaround under SIG and waivers may just be more complicated, not more effective, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic. NCLB was a huge step forward for federal education policy, and these reports are just a friendly reminder that we haven’t entirely figured out what the next step should be. And that means we need much more research and analysis of NCLB waivers. As Bellwether’s Andy Smarick concluded his birthday tribute, “While lots of energy will be spent on the Common Core, assessment consortia, teacher evaluations, etc., I hope that we dedicate equal bandwidth to monitoring the impact of the waivers and making course corrections.”

You and me both, Andy.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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