Movement in Washington, but not the kind we want

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenThe U.S. Department of Education released news last week that might be construed as promising, but it’s not quite a reason to celebrate.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced plans to grant some states and school districts waivers from key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act if the U.S. Congress doesn’t complete the work of rewriting the decade-old law by the time it adjourns for August recess.

For Maine, that might mean we — along with a group of partner states — apply for a waiver from the provision that requires all schools each year to make adequate yearly progress toward 100 percent proficiency on standardized tests by 2014.

While it’s too early to know whether we’ll seek such a waiver, the move away from adequate yearly progress would be welcome relief for schools that invest precious resources into meeting seemingly arbitrary benchmarks that become more and more unrealistic each year.

It would also allow Maine schools to begin the transition to use of a growth model, an accountability system that rewards schools and teachers for the progress students make under their watch. The current one — under No Child Left Behind — penalizes those schools and teachers if students fall short of the one-size-fits-all proficiency mark, even when those students have grown academically.

While it’s encouraging to see some movement in the nation’s capital toward releasing us from the stranglehold of No Child Left Behind, it’s not the preferred outcome.

What’s preferred, of course, would be progress on the legislative front toward the long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As I’ve said before, the No Child Left Behind law is an outdated approach to demanding accountability from our schools. Today — unlike in 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law — the vast majority of states have come together to implement a common set of rigorous academic standards. Those states are also moving toward a new generation of standardized exams that will more accurately predict students’ progress toward mastering standards and offer teachers useful and instant feedback that can inform their instruction.

Rather than incremental movement away from the various provisions of No Child Left Behind, what we really need is a new law to take its place.