Guest Blog (John Thompson): The rewards and dangers of NCLB waivers for urban schools

John Thompson is a former Oklahoma historian and inner city teacher who is now an education writer focusing on inner city schools.

When Oklahoma’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver was granted, local news celebrated a new era of “freedom and autonomy,” apparently believing that standardized testing will become less ubiquitous. But the waiver does not mean that educators who are tired of standardizing testing should be smiling, or that we will begin “a whole new way of educating children”. Neither, however, does it mean that a right-wing conspiracy is poised to take over local schools.

Basically, the Obama Administration’s NCLB waivers were designed to relieve pressure to teach to the test for 90 percent of the nation’s schools, while doubling down on ‘bubble-in accountability’ for the most challenging 10 percent, and imposing new standards for evaluating teachers. It may or may not be possible, however, for a poor state like Oklahoma to successfully comply with the federal mandates.

The three most important aspects of the waiver deal with:  reading proficiency for 3rd graders, priority schools, and data-driven evaluation systems. Oklahoma Secretary of Education Janet Barresi is correct to say that the word “waiver” sends the wrong message. If anything, Oklahoma is now committed to a significantly more rigorous accountability system.

For the state as a whole, the most important feature of Oklahoma’s new education policy is the requirement that 3rd graders demonstrate reading proficiency before being promoted. This policy is modeled on reforms in Florida that showed outstanding results during Governor Jeb Bush’s first term, when the state’s economic boom allowed for a full range of holistic policies. It has been much less successful  since then. It would be better to invest the $8,500 that it costs to hold back a student with high-quality interventions during 4th and 5th grade. On the other hand, districts across the nation have not attempted those sorts of interventions.  So, at least, Oklahoma’s new policy will finally force districts to focus on the single most important educational issue.

For the district that I know best, the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS), the biggest change is that the state is now empowered to intervene with the 24 lowest performing “Priority Schools.” Like most school systems, the OKCPS responded to NCLB by standardizing instruction-driven reforms that are based on the hypothesis that “schools alone” can overcome intense concentrations of generational poverty. Those “light touch,” teacher-centered policies have worked in more run-of-the-mill low income schools, but they were never designed to turn around the toughest schools that serve all students.  Consequently, the OKCPS needs to shift gears and differentiate between the very different types of challenges that are faced by its diverse high-poverty schools. The waiver calls for that type of “rifle-shot” approach. On the other hand, I do not believe that state and federal agencies understand the magnitude of the task that has been thrust on the OKCPS  The district has 13 neighborhood secondary schools, and 11 of them are now subject to various levels of state oversight.

Finally, the waiver, along with a new Oklahoma law which was passed in order the compete for the federal Race to the Top grant, require teachers to be evaluated based on an experimental model, known as a value-added model or VAM, for estimating whether individual teachers raised test scores as much as an algorithm says they should. The best evidence on these statistical models is that they are most unfair to teachers with high numbers of English Language Learners (ELL). This is a huge factor for Tulsa-area schools where Hispanic population grew by 257 percent between 1998 and 2008.  The challenge is even bigger in the OKCPS where the Hispanic population increased from about 20 to 46 percent of its students in only a decade. These statistical models are also unfair to teachers with large numbers of special education students. The nearly half of the OKCPS’s secondary schools that are on the preliminary state watch list have special education and ELL populations that add up to more than 46 percent, and only one has a low income population below 91 percent.

In other words, the federal government has forced Oklahoma to fly blind in regard to many of the experimental policies that it required for NCLB waivers. Combine all three of the new priorities being imposed on urban schools, and we have the potential for great good or great harm being done to poor schools.

Perhaps the biggest problem will not be the challenge of implementing any one of these transformational changes, but rather that all three tasks are being dumped on systems at the same time, even though the discredited old bubble-in route to reform has not been removed from districts’ plates. The best help that the state could provide would be to send the unmistakable message that schools are free to reject the discredited NCLB-type accountability, as they focus on future uncertainties.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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