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No Child Left Behind Lessens Punishment on Under-performing Schools

Jun 10, 2011

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the education law of the land since 2001, demands that schools annually assess students' proficiency in math and reading. The legislation states that schools not meeting academic benchmarks are subject to sanctions, including potential closure. But many underperforming schools are getting a reprieve from punishments.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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Controversial Education Law

Since its passage in 2001, No Child Left Behind has been a controversial education law. Educators throughout the country have found faults with the legislation, including its reliance upon students' standardized test scores as the primary measure by which schools are judged. Many also said that certain mandates of the law were unfunded. Some administrators and teachers have expressed concern that they simply don't have adequate resources to ensure all students are 'proficient' (as outlined by the legislation) in math and reading by 2014, the law's stated intent.

It turns out they may not have to. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken steps to lessen (or eliminate) the potential blow to schools not meeting academic benchmarks leading up to that time, and the ultimate fate of the legislation is now up in the air. Under NCLB, schools that are not shown to be making 'adequate yearly progress' toward full student proficiency by 2014 are to face sanctions up to and including closure. In 2009 alone, however, Duncan relied on his own discretion to issue 315 waivers exempting schools from benchmark targets. (Data is not yet available for 2010.)

Arne Duncan's actions are widely seen to be diluting the potency of the NCLB law. By way of comparison, Rod Paige, Education Secretary during 2002-2004, issued eight waivers over the course of his term. Margaret Spellings, who headed the Department of Education from 2005-2008, issued 91 total waivers. In a single year, then, Duncan allowed more than three times the number of waivers provided over the previous seven years.

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Waiting for Reform

While Duncan has largely been quiet on the issue of waivers, he has repeatedly suggested that there is a need for more flexibility in the No Child Left Behind legislation. President Obama has stated that reforming the law must be a legislative priority, and he has asked Congress to do so before the beginning of the next school year. Progress on that effort has stalled, however, and many schools are in danger of being identified as underperforming under the original legislation. It is in this context that Education Secretary Duncan has stepped in to issue waivers, preventing widespread sanctions.

Waivers can take various forms. For instance, a school district may be allowed to eschew NCLB-mandated benchmarks in favor of using its own standards for determining adequate student progress. Other districts have been allowed to incorporate diverse testing formats or to provide supplemental tutoring to students attending schools that have been identified as 'failing.' Some districts have also gained waivers by offering school choice to students and their families.

While waivers have helped to prevent high numbers of schools from being identified as underperforming, their widespread issue is thought to be only a stopgap measure until full reform of NCLB can be passed into law. Duncan has advocated for the need to build flexibility into the revision of the law, whenever legislative effort gains steam. Without that flexibility, the education secretary has stated, up to 80% of schools could be labeled as failing in 2011.

Interested in learning more about efforts at reform in K-12 schools? Read about recent developments in education reform.

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