NCLB Waivers: Closing Achievement Gap Requires Policy Overhaul, Not Tweaks

To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have been granted a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. According to Education Weekly, once given the flexibility to revise their accountability system all but eight states have taken the opportunity to alter their achievement goals. States are now telling the Department of Education (DOE) that it will take longer for low-income, minority, and/or disabled children to reach proficiency than it will for everyone else. For example, the District of Columbia has said that by 2017, 70 percent of African American students and 90 percent of white students will be reading on grade level. In Delaware, it's 75 percent reading proficiency for black students, 71 percent for English Language Learners and 87 percent for white students.

As you can imagine, this has rankled the feathers of education advocates on all sides of the education reform debate. Opponents say that the 26 states that have altered subgroup achievement goals are lowering expectations for at-risk children. Proponents of the changes say states are being realistic about how long it will take to close the achievement gap.

My concern isn't about how the goals and timelines are being perceived, but rather, what policies and systemic changes are being implemented so states can realize their goals. What we should have learned from No Child Left Behind is that you can set a goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students, but if you don't have the policies to support that goal, you are going to fall far short.

Take, for example, my home state of Missouri. Missouri, to its credit, is one of the eight states that has not used the waiver to set different goals for each subgroup. However, the five-year trend in Missouri shows that without some serious policy overhaul it will take 174 years to close the achievement gap between Hispanic students and white students in reading and 87 years to close the black/white achievement gap in math. Additionally, the gap between low-income and non-low-income students in both math and reading is continuing to widen.

The achievement gaps in Missouri are not unlike the achievement gaps we see all over America. While it is admirable that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education believes the gap can be closed by 2017, I fear that the policy changes the department has outlined are not transformational enough to get the job done.

In order to close gaps of this magnitude, Missouri and other states have to focus on the following strategies:

• Turn traditional public schools into a model of autonomy for principals and teachers that ensures each school is able to meet the needs of the unique learners in its school;
• Provide a transparent system for giving A-F letter grades to all schools and hold them accountable for student outcomes and school spending decisions;
• Increase educational choices so children who are stuck in schools not making significant progress have a fantastic and immediate choice for something different and better;
• Recruit, retain, compensate and evaluate teachers based on performance, not seniority.

These kinds of systemic changes are happening in some places, but not in Missouri. Worse yet, there is currently no plan for them to. The outline for closing the achievement gap calls for the rehashing of a lot of worthwhile tweaks, but history has shown us that slight adjustments aren't enough.

My fear is that we are getting hung up on how states are communicating their goals for closing the achievement gap and forgetting that the actual plan for closing the achievement gap is what is important. Having spent a decade working in and with students in the mostly low-income and minority Saint Louis Public Schools, I understand as well as anyone the damage that the soft bigotry of low expectations can cause, but the loud bigotry of inaction is even worse.

Kate Casas is the State Policy Director of the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, a statewide policy organization that focuses on parent engagement and public awareness.