The announcement this week that the U.S. Department of Education will grant Maryland a waiver from some of the more onerous requirements of the decade-old federal No Child Left Behind Act is welcome news for the state's school reform effort. It means Maryland will be free to set more reasonable goals for student achievement levels and adopt reforms that are necessary to close the gap between its lowest- and highest-performing schools and school districts. Maryland needs a more rational and balanced approach to measuring educational progress, and now it can create one without having to wait for lawmakers in Washington to act.
The decade-old NCLB law, passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support, was the signature education initiative of the Bush administrationt. At the time, it was hailed as a tremendous spur to reform because it focused much-needed attention on the crisis in public education compared to school systems in other leading countries, and because it forced the nation to come to grips with the idea that failing schools should be held accountable rather be allowed to continue with business as usual.
But from the start, there were problems with the law. One way it sought to hold schools accountable, for example, was to require they show what was called "adequate yearly progress" toward raising standardized test scores. Schools that didn't could face some form of restructuring. Yet it soon became clear that strategy was counterproductive. Too many schools, including some of the highest-performing ones, couldn't keep up with annual progress targets that kept rising year after year. As a result, many were labeled failing even though their problems were only in a few areas involving a relatively small number of students.
Another difficulty with the law was its requirement that states bring 100 percent of their students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Though the goal was laudable, in retrospect it was also unrealistic. And it also had a destructive effect on efforts to raise educational standards because it encouraged states to water down their curriculum in an effort to pass as many students as possible. In some cases, it even drove teachers and principals to resort to cheating in order to demonstrate progress.
For years, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been urging Congress to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law to correct its flaws, but the bipartisan consensus on education of the Bush years no longer exists, and the current gridlocked Congress has shown no inclination to resolve the matter any time soon. Last year, Mr. Duncan announced he would approve waivers to the law if Congress didn't act; so far, 19 states have been approved, and more than half the others have pending applications.
Since NCLB was passed, many states, including Maryland, have developed newer and more sophisticated ways of holding schools accountable, such as revising the methods for evaluating teachers and moving toward a common national curriculum that raises standards across the board, not just in reading and math. In addition to those steps, Maryland also has pledged to cut the achievement gaps between its highest- and lowest-performing schools in half over the next six years; to measure school performance by groups of students — minorities, special education students and English as second language students — as well as by individuals; and to concentrate resources on schools that need the most help.
The waiver will also give Maryland more freedom in how it spends federal dollars to educate poor children. Under NCLB, for example, the state was required to spend a certain portion of federal education grants on tutoring services, regardless of whether it led to better outcomes for students. Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has long complained that requirement has cost the city millions of dollars for private tutoring services whose effect on student achievement has yet to be proven.
We're only in this situation because of Congress' failure to revamp the NCLB law despite broad agreement that an overhaul is needed. It would certainly be preferable for Congress to step up to the plate and produce a new national policy with broad bipartisan support, but that may be too much to hope for this year. In the meantime, Maryland's children and teachers can't afford to wait while lawmakers in Washington dither. The waiver breaks the logjam blocking reform and allows Maryland to move ahead on its own.