White House backtracks on changes to No Child Left Behind

States will not have to meet October 2015 deadline to show low-income students are not taught by bad teachers

Christian Buzzerd, right, a teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maryland, conducts a class in cursive writing on Oct. 15, 2013.
Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

The Department of Education has abandoned a three-month-old plan that would have forced schools exempt from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to prove by October 2015 that their poor and minority students are not disproportionately taught by the lowest-performing teachers.

In a letter Thursday, Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle told state schools chiefs that the Department of Education decided to amend the waiver extension process for any state seeking an exemption from the law, rolling back the requirements aimed to ensure equal access to the best teachers.

States will still be required to evaluate the effectiveness of each school based on results from standardized test scores, rewarding high-scoring schools and penalizing schools that do not meet the mark ­­— but without a firm timeline set, which critics say enables schools to ignore NCLB’s requirements.

The change reverses a deadline set by the department just three months ago.

Delisle said the decision to drop the deadline comes after “input from a variety of stakeholders,” but doesn’t specify what the input was or who the stakeholders were.

Education advocates, however, say the Obama administration is effectively turning its back on a 2008 campaign promise to make sure poor and minority students are taught by qualified teachers.

“This about-face, substituting a rubber stamp renewal of states’ current NCLB waiver plans with no attention to these two pressing issues, is baffling and extremely disappointing,” Kati Haycock of the nonprofit The Education Trustwrote in a letter posted on the group’s website.

“Through its actions today, the department allows states to continue giving schools top ratings regardless of how student groups perform. And it also allows them to keep sweeping under the rug the gaps in teacher quality that contribute so heavily to long-standing achievement gaps.”

The department told The Huffington Post that the change removes a burden from schools that are already challenged with implementing the “Common Core” standards, a state-led initiative designed to create a single set of educational standards, led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

"It's an awful lot to try to get accomplished in the short amount of time that is left," John Barge, Georgia's state school superintendent, told The Huffington Post when asked about Common Core. "How do you get an effective teacher from a suburban or metro area to move to a low-performing district in rural Georgia? It's not that it can't be done, it's just harder to get there."

Scott Sargrad, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Education, emphasized in an interview with The Huffington Post that schools are already required to ensure that poor and minority students aren’t weighed down with the majority of bad teachers, even if there isn’t a deadline set.

Numerous calls to the Department of Education seeking comment were not returned.

Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, doesn’t see the change as a bad thing.

“It’s a shift back to state control from federal control,” he said when asked about the change. “The department had a plan that was holding them (states) accountable to one framework that states were saying doesn’t fit all their various situations.”

Carroll said, “When a state has to apply for a waiver, they’re saying, 'give us a waiver because we have our own plan for meeting this objective that we think is better than the federal plan.'”

Carroll told Al Jazeera that before No Child Left Behind, states were “operating year-after-year with no measure of how effective their programs were for low-income and minority students,” and now there is “public reporting, public accountability for how subgroups are performing.”

Education Trust’s Haycock, however, doesn’t see things the same way, pointing out in her statement that little has changed in the 12 years since Congress passed NCLB with the aim of improving education for low-income and minority students.

“While those children have waited for the law to be enforced, an entire generation of them worked their way from kindergarten through high school, taught by too many inexperienced, unqualified and out-of-field teachers, and too few of the expert teachers who could have helped them soar,” Haycock wrote.

“They, certainly, have paid a steep price," he added. "But so, too, has America.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Common Core was a national cirriculum program implemented by the Obama administration. Common Core is a state-led initiative, overseen by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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