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A Call for More Flexibility from NCLB

NCLB was due for reauthorization in 2007. Then, in 2008, the first Black president in U.S. history, Barack Obama, was sworn into office.

In his first term, former President Obama tried to reach across the political aisle and gain bipartisan support for policies on his agenda. However, the reauthorization of NCLB at the time competed with other politics like the Great Recession of 2008, the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement, and the long drawn out battle in Congress over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, a policy which many conservative policy makers believed would open Pandora’s box for what was then perceived as more Obama-style socialism. Furthermore, the election of the first Black president by no means meant that the U.S. was post-racial. In fact, there was an undercurrent of white resentment towards the first Black president, and this racism largely thwarted Obama’s efforts to initiate deliberative, democratic bipartisanship. Thus, the confluence of political divisiveness during much of Obama’s two terms as president, plus other competing priorities, further delayed the reauthorization of NCLB.

In the meantime, states and districts were still beholden to NCLB’s mandates. Since the reauthorization of the law remained in queue while Congress hashed out other pressing policy issues, the Obama Administration gave states NCLB waivers to pardon them from some of the more restrictive and punitive requirements under the law (McGuinn, 2016). Forty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, received NCLB waivers (Klein, 2015). States with waivers were no longer beholden to the 2013-14 deadline for all students to achieve proficiency. Nor were schools in these states that missed their performance targets required to offer school choice or use Title I funds for tutoring (Klein, 2015). However, the perceived flexibility of NCLB waivers came with a catch. States receiving NCLB waivers either had to implement the Common Core standards or their postsecondary education institutions had to verify that the existing state standards were rigorous enough for students to be considered college and career ready (Klein, 2015; McGuinn, 2016). NCLB waiver recipients also had to develop assessments aligned with the standards, institute teacher evaluation policies tied to progress on student assessments, and require 15% of their schools in need of interventions to participate in school turnaround (Klein, 2015). The Obama Administration saw NCLB waivers as one way to have federal impact on education reform while it was still unable to get bipartisan support to reauthorize ESEA. However, conservatives viewed the granting of NCLB waivers as federal overreach and abuse of the Obama Administration’s executive power (Egalite et al., 2017).

ESSA Aims to Promote Equity through Less Federal Oversight

After going almost the entire two terms of his presidency without the reauthorization of ESEA, there was finally bipartisan success and President Obama signed into law the next iteration of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), on December 10, 2015. ESSA is seen as the antithesis to the one-size-fits-all education reform, tough sanctions, and teaching to the test that transpired in the NCLB era (Wong, 2015). Thus, ESSA presumes to address the limitations of NCLB by lessening federal involvement in classrooms and returning the decision-making power to states by giving them the flexibility to design standards and assessments that meet the needs of their students (Coomer et al., 2017).

Moreover, we now have copious testimonies and research to attest to how the punitive and one-size-fits-all NCLB mandates and similar state test-based accountability systems had deficit-oriented consequences for low-income and students of color as well as their schools and teachers that were deemed failing under the law (Leonardo, 2007; McNeil, Coppola, Radigan, & Vasquez Heilig, 2008; Welton et al., 2015; Valenzuela, 2005). So, ESSA, in response, intends to be more equitycentered by allowing states and districts to develop reforms that are contextually customizable and meet the specific needs of their students.

According to Egalite et al. (2017), there are four specific ways in which ESSA centers equity while still lessening federal oversight of public education. First, ESSA disallows the Secretary of Education to use waivers as a carrot and stick that pressures states into adopting a certain set of standards like the Common Core. Second, states are no longer required to implement teacher and leader evaluations that are tied to student assessments and performance (Egalite et al., 2017). Third, states have the freedom to develop accountability systems that align with their local context and use other school performance measures that are not an indicator of student academic performance per se, but instead provide other assessments of a school’s quality like student and educator engagement, school climate and safety, and student participation and completion of advanced coursework, or postsecondary readiness (Egalite, et al., 2017; Penuel, Meyer, & Valladares, 2016). Finally, the fourth way in which ESSA is seen as a more equity-centered departure from NCLB is that it is more accommodating and merciful to states’ lowest-performing schools. Previously, NCLB required the 15% lowest-performing schools in states to participate in a prescriptive school turnaround process, but now under ESSA states and local districts can design interventions that are the best contextual fit for schools that represent what has now changed to the lowest 5% of schools in terms of performance (Egalite et al., 2017).

Additionally, under NCLB, schools could be financially penalized for their low performance as they were restricted in how they could use their Title I funding for interventions. Under ESSA, states can be more creative in how they use federal funding to achieve equity for students struggling academically. As such, ESSA state accountability systems must provide either of the following categories of support for chronically low-performing schools: Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools represent the lowest 5 % of Title I schools and high schools considered dropout factories with graduation rates below 67 %; and Targeted Support and Improvement Schools are schools that have a subgroup (race, language, disability, socioeconomic status, as well as intersections of these subgroups) of students who are consistently underperforming (Ariza, King, Lewis, Smith, & Wilkins, 2017). Districts are required to develop improvement plans for either category of schools and then states must set performance thresholds for schools to achieve and eventually exit one of these categories (Ariza et al., 2017). One final category, the Additional Targeted Support and Improvement Schools, comprises schools that have one or more subgroups with performance so low that if all the students in the subgroup were in itself a school then they could be classified as a Comprehensive Improvement School. Schools in this latter category must develop district approved plans to redress resource inequities (Ariza et al., 2017).

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