Oklahoma Lost its NCLB Waiver, But Won an Accountability Reprieve

Oklahoma Lost its NCLB Waiver, But Won an Accountability Reprieve
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In this July 21, 2014 photo, Kelci Gouge teaches a third grade class at a summer reading academy at Buchanan elementary school in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma lawmakers repealed Common Core standards for English and math instruction.(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

RCEd Commentary

On Thursday, Oklahoma became the second state to lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind. But just like in the World Cup, where the U.S. advanced out of the group stage despite a 1-0 loss to Germany in their last game, the U.S. Department of Education has proven with this latest waiver move that states, too, can sometimes win by losing. The Oklahoma episode also again showcases the gap that frequently exists between how education policy decisions are discussed on blogs, Twitter, and in the media and how the policies actually work.

At issue is legislation that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed this spring to repeal the Common Core and write new college- and career-ready academic standards. But in the meantime, schools reverted back to the standards that were in place before Common Core--and these standards have not been “certified” as college- and career-ready by Oklahoma’s colleges and universities. And they shouldn’t be, when 40% of Oklahoma students require college remediation. Without college- and career-ready standards in place for the coming school year, Secretary Duncan was absolutely right to call out the Sooner State and throw their waiver in jeopardy.

But let’s examine the “punishment” more closely. Is this evidence of “test-and-punish” accountability run amok as critics on the left argue? Of an overzealous federal bureaucracy as we hear from the political right? Not so fast. While the state may claim that 1,600 schools (up from 490 in 2011-12) could “fail” to make AYP this year with the return of NCLB, the number facing actual consequences for their performance is much, much smaller.

For starters, Oklahoma doesn’t even have 1,600 Title I schools. And it takes multiple years of missing AYP for Title I schools to be placed in improvement. Moreover, the Department has cut Oklahoma additional slack: only schools in corrective action or restructuring--the more serious NCLB sanctions--will be required to implement those strategies this school year. And based on the interventions in place pre-waiver, only 55 schools, at most, could be affected under that standard. That’s right. 55, or a little less than 5% of Title I schools, face the possibility of any required federal intervention this year. Further, some of those schools will likely make AYP via safe harbor and escape corrective action, remaining in the 2nd year of school improvement.

Even smaller number of schools will see any significant improvement action: only 8 Oklahoma schools, or less than 1 percent, face the possibility of restructuring this year, the sanction that is most analogous to priority schools under waivers. Contrast that to Washington, where over 400 schools are in restructuring now that the state lost its waiver.

It’s counterintuitive, but Oklahoma’s school improvement efforts under a return to NCLB in 2014-15 are much less extensive than they would have been under waivers. In some ways, it reflects a reasonable compromise. Because the school year has started and district budgets have been approved, there simply isn’t time for Oklahoma schools to jumpstart the dormant NCLB improvement machine in its entirety. Giving the state leeway, until 2015-16, to implement supplemental educational services and choice programs will make the transition less chaotic for families and schools. But it means that any Title I school that would have been required to offer choice or tutoring this year won’t have to, and those districts won’t have to set aside 20% of their Title I funds for those purposes. This includes the vast majority of the 1,600 schools the state claims will be “failing”--and it means that the $30 million in Title I funding that is apparently “restricted” is significantly overestimated.

Yet in other ways, the Department’s handling of Oklahoma’s waiver only serves to highlight the complete absurdity of our current federal accountability policy and its mischaracterization (in the press, on education blogs, in the Twitter-sphere, etc.). Oklahoma can play the victim of a fickle, aggressive Department of Education... when they are actually required to do much less without their waiver than they would have had to do with it. And the Department can puff out its chest for holding the line and enforcing their waiver priorities... when they are actually giving the Sooner State a pretty sweet deal.

So Oklahoma may have lost is waiver, but they really won in the end in no small part because the original No Child Left Behind policy doesn’t actually function as it’s usually described in the media. The state won’t have to implement other components required for waiver states, such as teacher and principal evaluations, college- and career-ready standards and tests, or the identification of priority and focus schools next year.

For its part the Department of Education had other options. Officials could have held Oklahoma and other states to a strict deadline and required them to have their accountability systems in place by the end of June, for example. By waiting until well into the school year to approve waiver extensions, the Department boxed themselves in if a state failed to live up to its commitments. Or, if the Department wanted to be lenient (perhaps too lenient), it could have placed Oklahoma on “high-risk” status and held the state accountable for getting back on track with their original waiver plans.

Instead, losing a waiver has never looked so good.

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