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NCLB Waivers Should Not Be Unconditional: New Accountability Strategy Needed

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Focus on Common Elements of Successful School Turnarounds Must be Included

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) "is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers." This is due particularly to NCLB's unrealistic, ineffective, punitive and harmful accountability requirements. States must bring virtually 100% of students to academic "proficiency" by 2014. Schools that fail to reach the increasingly high interim percentage targets for all groups of students are labeled failing. And if they fail for two or more consecutive years, they must implement escalating sanctions such as staff replacement, charter school conversions or state takeovers.

As the number of schools deemed failing skyrockets -- already about 38,000 schools in 2009-
10, projected to increase to about 85,000 of our 100,000 schools by 2014 -- states object to the accountability system and lack the capacity to comply. Thus, absent overdue congressional action, many states support having the Secretary exercise his statutory authority to waive these requirements. He should.

But the waivers should not be unconditional. Our poor, minority, and other public school students, teachers, administrators and parents have already suffered enough from the years of misconceived NCLB-driven "school reform." While NCLB's specific accountability strategy has seriously failed to achieve its goal of raising all students to academic proficiency, the executive branch has a legal and moral responsibility to do whatever it lawfully can, through granting waivers or otherwise, to help achieve NCLB's goals.

What is desperately needed is a new accountability strategy: not one, like NCLB, that continues to demand that schools dramatically raise student achievement and then abandons them to flail on their own. Instead, one that actually helps schools improve and students learn.

Can this be done? Absolutely. We already know that it is possible to turn around low-achieving
schools. Moreover, we know that successful turnarounds share a set of common elements:
1) leadership by the principal, teachers and other stakeholders 2) instructional improvement 3) curriculum that is challenging, rich, culturally relevant and aligned within and between grades 4) climate of high expectations, respect, support and safety and 5) parent and community involvement and support.

Further, we know a range of concrete policies and practices that successful turnarounds typically use to implement these elements. These sub-elements include having a skilled, strong and committed principal as the catalyst for change and getting teachers to work together to analyze individual students' work and performance, develop lesson plans and coordinate curriculum within and between grade levels.

These elements embody not only the process for turning around low-achieving schools, but also, to a vast extent, the characteristics of good schools. There is compelling reason to believe that adopting them would dramatically improve low-achieving schools and students' learning.

Therefore, waivers should be conditioned on states agreeing to focus their policies and practices on implementing these common elements/sub-elements where absent in their Title I-funded schools. In exchange for being relieved of NCLB's rigid and widely ineffective escalating sanctions, schools and districts would be held accountable through: publicly reporting their implementation actions and results achieved, including assessment data disaggregated by student groups; professional external evaluations; and ultimately, states taking responsibility for intervention where necessary.

Unfortunately, the administration's proposed waiver principles do not even mention that successful school turnarounds share common elements, let alone propose to require states to focus on implementing these elements in their Title I-funded schools generally.

The closest the administration comes is its proposed principle that states agree "to take on the lowest-performing schools [.]" Two of four school turnaround models the administration might require states to use for these schools include some, but not nearly all, of the common elements and sub-elements. (Those models are also defective in other respects.) Further, this condition predictably would apply to only about the bottom 5 percent of schools.

As to helping all the other low-achieving schools among the remaining 95 percent improve, the
administration proposes to give the states great "flexibility." But such "flexibility" would only perpetuate our wasteful and destructive practice of continually "reinventing the wheel" in how to turn around schools -- failing to learn from our past successes.

Instead, the administration should require waiver requests to address how, within budget limitations, states will focus their Title I-funded schools and districts on implementing the common elements of successful turnarounds, and help them do so.

Such a condition would not only dramatically help schools improve and students learn. It would
greatly strengthen the Secretary's legal grounds for granting waivers, because such a condition would directly accomplish the two critical goals the Secretary is statutorily obligated to promote in granting NCLB waivers: to " (i) increase the quality of instruction for students and (ii) improve the academic achievement of students [.]" 20 USC 7861(b)(1)(B).

We know what works. Now we must do it.

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