NCLB Waiver Renewal Guidance: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In a speech to chief state school officers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan finally unveiled guidance for states seeking to renew their waivers from No Child Left Behind, all of which (except Illinois’) are set to expire at the end of the school year. These renewal guidelines (see the official guidance and letter to states here for the nitty-gritty details) are critical, because they are the last remaining leverage point for this administration to urge states to stay the course on some of its key priorities, from college- and career-ready standards and tests to new teacher evaluation systems that take into account students’ learning. And with Duncan and Co.’s time and capacity quickly expiring, managing the implementation of waivers is one of the few big remaining items on the administration’s to-do list.

While I could go on (and on) about the finer points of the waiver renewal guidelines, here are three big takeaways—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and what they mean for NCLB waivers moving forward (if you want a longer take, check out these recaps, with reactions from the field, from Politics K-12 and Huffington Post).  

The good. Unlike the last round of waivers and waiver extensions, states will be able to get flexibility for three or even four years, in some cases (something I suggested that the Department consider). While longer waivers pose risks, especially if states are making poor choices with their newfound flexibility and seeing marginal improvement in student learning, these policy risks are outweighed by how the additional time will improve the waiver process—and possibly, the chances for a reauthorization before 2019 (seventeen years after NCLB’s passage), when the last of these new waivers could expire. In this light, it’s a win-win for everybody: baking in Duncan’s preferred policies well into the next administration’s tenure, providing states with the policy stability they’ve been craving, and giving a new administration some breathing room to develop their own policies and approaches toward reauthorization and flexibility.

The bad. The department has clearly heard the repeated calls from civil rights groups and powerful legislators to strengthen accountability for low-income and minority students. There are two key additions to the renewal guidelines. The first asks states for “a demonstration that a school may not receive the highest rating in the state’s accountability system if there are significant achievement or graduation rate gaps in the school that are not closing.” This is almost verbatim from the recommendations in a recent EdTrust report. The second change asks states for “a clear and rigorous process for providing interventions and supports to other Title I schools and supports for low-achieving students in those schools that consistently miss benchmarks.” This is also clearly a hat-tip to the civil rights community, who have been concerned that schools whose students persistently miss performance targets may receive little attention or support.

But while this sounds like a win for these advocacy groups, a “demonstration” and a “process” seem more likely to lead to additional promises (and pages) in states’ renewal requests than actual policy changes. In other words, there are now two additional hoops for states to jump through before getting their waivers renewed… but that might be all it amounts to. There is no assurance that this exercise leads to substantive actions that would build stronger accountability for low-income and minority kids. I’d rather the department add nothing to its accountability guidance than require yet another high-quality plan (and nothing more) to address equity issues.

The ugly. The biggest disappointment in the new guidance is not that the department is refusing to look at student or school outcomes to determine waiver renewals. It’s that it is refusing to request any additional data from states whatsoever. States are testing myriad approaches to accountability, with new rating systems, new indicators (like student growth and college and career benchmarks), new subgroups, and new interventions to turn around struggling schools. But without more, and better, data from states, meaningful evaluation of these policies—as states promised to do in their waivers three years ago—is impossible. We simply won’t know whether waivers are working any better than NCLB to improve student learning.

While the department is still working to produce (a year later) basic data profiles of waiver states based on information it has already collected, these profiles will be limited to two years of data and a handful of measures—in short, only scratching the surface of basic research questions like: “are priority schools improving?” By refusing to request more data, the department missed a huge opportunity to help evaluate the effectiveness of states’ waiver choices—a question the field will surely need to answer well before 2019.