Education Reform: You Can Fix the Sanctions but the Problem Is Still There

Beginning in 2010, the Obama administration offered states waivers from the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, under which all students in America were supposed to be proficient in reading and math by this year, and if they weren’t, school would have to institute “corrective action” and restructuring plans.

States weren’t on target to meet these requirements, of course, and the Obama waivers would allow states and districts to avoid NCLB sanctions, if they instituted the Obama administration’s own education reform ideas, which together formed the policy known as Race to the Top. The reprieves were supposed to encourage school reforms that were “deeper and wider.”

But it turns out the education community hasn’t really done a very good job instituting all of those things they promised the feds in order to avoid sanctions.

Deeper and wider perhaps, but still not very good. According to an article at Education Week:

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave more than 40 states and the District of Columbia the flexibility from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, he had an inherent trade-off in mind: States would identify fewer schools for interventions than previously under NCLB, but they would engage in much deeper and more sustained turnaround work.

States were dinged for failing to follow through on their plans for turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools and intervening in schools with persistent achievement gaps.

Overall, seventeen out of 35 waiver states for which waiver monitoring reports have been released by the Education Department were cited for not following through on their plans for fixing up “priority” schools—those bottom 5 percent of performers.

That’s probably because instituting “deeper and more sustained turnaround work” on persistently low-performing schools is hard, and fairly easy to avoid, particularly because such schools tend to be attended by the children of poor people, who don’t have that much political clout.

It looks like the attitude was something rather like an agreement signed under duress. Yeah, sure whatever, we’ll do what you want. Just tell us where to sign so we can get out of NCLB.

The states might find a way to fix this problem soon, but don’t bet on it. As Diane Stark Renter, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, explained to the author of the article: “It’s easy to set up accountability systems, it’s easy to identify low-performing schools.” It’s really, really hard to fix the problem. That’s, in fact, the part of education policy we’ve been working on for years, and never figured out how to do very well.

In fact, I bet if we return to the bottom 5 percent of schools and schools with persistent achievement gaps in 2024 we’ll find that the sitting president will also have some education reform designed to transform these schools, and states will still be struggling to implement it, and, in the absence of demographic changes to the neighborhood where they’re located, the exact same schools will be among those we’re supposed to focus on fixing.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer