No Child Left Behind waivers put standards back under local control

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(photo credit: Heather Johnson)

When eight of California’s school districts won an exemption from the No Child Left Behind law from the U.S. Department of Education last week, much was made about what standards were being waived. However, lost in the hubbub of the nullification of the unpopular law were details on what would be replacing NCLB and how the eight districts planned on applying these new standards to best educate California’s students.

Much as the districts’ appeal to the Department of Education was done jointly, the new system for the eight districts will also be executed in tandem. According California Office to Reform Education’s executive director Rick Miller, the centerpiece of the new standards comes in the peer-to-peer pairing of schools. “The pairing works by finding schools that are doing particularly well in an area your school is struggling and pairing you up,” Miller said.

“There’s a three step criteria,” Miller said. “The first is find whatever area you’re struggling in, and then find all the schools in our network that are doing well in that area. Number two is among those schools, which schools are demographically close to you. And number three is who is geographically closest to you, to save costs. Whatever comes out closest to looking like you, that’s the school [you’re paired with].”

If it sounds like the localization of academic standards, that’s because it is. “This is being led with local control in mind,” Miller said. “I think if you look at the accountability model we have developed, you see the difference between local control and top down management. When it comes from the top, it tends to be set as a low bar. When locals have the flexibility to do what they think is right, you have a much more nuanced measure of what’s happening in schools.”

Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, is a believer in the benefits that will come from the pairing because of the flow of knowledge. “Schools will be paired within districts and across different districts, sharing data and expertise,” he said. “The idea is to create a more collaborative and less punitive approach that accelerates gains in student achievement.”

Skeptics say districts just want to get out from under the draconian rules of No Child Left Behind, and while Miller does say that policy was stifling progress, he stresses that the new system for these districts is a real effort at improving academics. “One thing we’ve said very specifically is we’re not looking to escape from something, but to move to something better,” Miller said. “That pairing is not done reluctantly [by schools]. They don’t see this as something to put up with, but as something that they very much want.”


Matthew Grant Anson

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