Waiver No Favor

So Pennsylvania just joined 44 other states in the country that have already applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. It’s about time, you might say. But before you go getting excited that our state has suddenly become pro-public-education, let’s stop and take a look at what this really means. It turns out a waiver is no favor for Pennsylvania.

First, we have to remember what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about. While some educators appreciate the way it renewed focus on the lowest achieving students and the racial achievement gap, the act had many other consequences. NCLB established a system of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled.

NCLB effectively created “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content. [For details, see “Testing and More Testing.”] The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks and the laser focus on reading and math tests has drastically narrowed our school curricula: we’ve lost music, art, library, history, science, languages, and more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two single areas. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) using these test scores are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, transfer to a private charter school operator, or complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat” and how the feds just slapped down his latest scheme in “Talking Turkey About Charters.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed.” What’s more, our kids are expected to score proficient on tests that are normed – which by definition follow a bell curve, with half of the test takers always scoring above the mean, and half scoring below. Education historian Diane Ravitch points out:

“No matter how hard you try, a bell curve is still a bell curve. There is no district in the nation where 100% of the children are proficient. The children who are most advantaged cluster in the top half; those who are least advantaged cluster in the bottom half. This is true of the SAT, the ACT, state tests, federal tests, and international tests. And, if you step back, you must wonder why the standardized tests–whose flaws, inaccuracies, and statistical vagaries are well known–have become the measure of all education. No private school in the nation is subjecting its children to this mad scramble to live up to the demands of Pearson and McGraw Hill’s psychometricians.” [“Waiver Madness,” DianeRavitch.net, 9-28-12]

In Pennsylvania, the number of districts making AYP fell from 94% in 2011 to 61% this year. So you would think applying for a waiver would be a good thing, freeing us from the ridiculous binds of this federal act that expects all our children to be proficient a short 18 months from now, and will ultimately wind up “failing” every single school district in the nation. Ah but wait. In exchange for a waiver from this insanity, states must agree to new mandates that are at least if not more harmful than NCLB itself.

This fall, the state of Vermont actually withdrew its request for an NCLB waiver, stating “it has become clear that the USED [U.S. Department of Education] is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.” Under a waiver, Vermont would still have been required to use a single high-stakes standardized test (like Pennsylvania’s PSSAs or Keystone Exams) and then would also have to use those test results for the bulk of a teacher’s evaluation. The state called these “heavy handed methods,” and had been negotiating for flexibility with USED, but determined, “the term ‘flexibility’ is a misnomer.” [Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In naming the entire state to her Honor Roll of public education advocates, Diane Ravitch noted that Vermont’s commissioner told the feds, “We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont. We do not have confidence that the requirements we are being asked to meet is the formula for success.” What’s more, the state refused to lower its cutoff scores as most other states have done to try to get more of their students over the AYP threshold. As a result, while Vermont’s students score consistently well on national exams (such as the NAEP), more than 70% of its schools are not making AYP. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

While Vermont’s withdrawal of its waiver request reflects a clearly reasoned stand on the harm being done to our schools in the name of NCLB and testing, our state’s long holdout was anything but. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said his “overriding concern” in not applying for the waiver until now, was that the waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any few federal laws could then render those changes obsolete. Based on his conversations with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sec. Tomalis now feels there will be no new federal legislation and appears more than willing to go along with making changes to our testing system to please NCLB waiver requirements. [Post-Gazette, 11-28-12]

What’s more, Tomalis had already applied for a two-year freeze on student testing targets, but the USED turned him down. So rather than taking a principled stand like Vermont, Pennsylvania is going along with the vast majority of other states in the country, ready to do what the USED tells them to do. And this is where it gets dangerous.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]

And if imposing new, damaging systems on our states was not bad enough, consider the fact that the entire waiver process itself is illegal. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan is blatantly circumventing federal law in issuing these waivers. As Diane Ravitch points out, “It is not the prerogative of any federal official–not even a cabinet member–to decide to disregard a federal law … If the law stinks, as NCLB does, revise it. That’s the way our legal system works. Once the precedent is set, any future cabinet member may decide to change the laws to suit his or her fancy.” [“NCLB Waivers and Junk Science in New York,” DianeRavitch.net, 8-31-12]

The bottom line is, waiver or no waiver, the high-stakes-testing culture of failure and blame being foisted upon our kids and our schools is a national travesty. In 2014 we are supposed to have 100% of our students proficient in reading and math. What we will actually have is 100% of our schools failing to make AYP. And under all these waiver systems, we will have even more of our poorest, African American, and Latino schools targeted for closure or handed over to private charter school operators. This is the state experimenting with our most struggling kids through school privatization, disrupting lives and communities. It’s insanity and it’s time to stop the madness.


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