Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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NCLB Out, ESEA Flexibility In

Published:  September 23, 2011

Today President Obama announced his administration’s plan for reforming No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). “Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will,” he said, noting that the reauthorization of ESEA is four years overdue.

Under the administration’s new ESEA flexibility plan, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will waive several of the key provisions of No Child Left Behind, including the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, as well as the requirement to identify – as “failing” – Title I schools that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for at least two consecutive years.

In return for ESEA flexibility, states must agree to:

  1. Adopt college and career standards and assessments in reading/language arts and mathematics.
  2. Establish a system of differentiated recognition, accountability and support for schools. This includes rewarding the highest-achieving schools that serve low-income students, “turning around” the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools and employing less drastic reform strategies to improve the next 10 percent of under-performing schools, those who show low achievement scores for specific subgroups of students, such as African Americans or English language-learners.
  3. Develop teacher and principal evaluation systems.
  4. Review and revise, if necessary, the state’s own administrative requirements to reduce unnecessary logistical burdens on local school districts and schools.

What does this mean for early childhood? States seeking a waiver will have to set new goals in reading/language arts and mathematics across every grade and subgroup, such as English language-learners, African Americans, and students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch. States will also need to determine how to improve the bottom 15 percent of schools, many of which will be elementary schools.

According to the Department of Education's flexibility plan, interventions to improve schools could include one of the four School Improvement Grant turnaround models (read here for more details), or could include strategies such as “providing the principal with operational flexibility in the areas of scheduling, staffing, curriculum, and budget” or “using data to inform instruction for continuous improvement, including by providing time for collaboration on the use of data.” Other reforms could include restructuring or lengthening the school day and outreach to family and community organizations to address non-academic factors that impact student achievement.

ESEA flexibility could also benefit younger children because under the proposed changes, states would be able to transfer funds currently intended for other purposes. For example, states and school districts could repurpose funding allocated by NCLB for tutoring and choice programs to more broadly support young children who most need help. One way these funds could be used is for schools to work with pre-kindergarten programs to help smooth transitions into kindergarten.

States could also apply for flexibility in using 21st Century Community Learning Centers dollars, which currently fund out-of-school programs for high-need children. But under the new ESEA flexibility plan, states could potentially use these grants to support expanded learning time during the school day, too. Doing so could provide additional instructional support for students who need it most.

The flexibility plan, however, does not go so far as to include early learning programs as a specific priority in its set of reforms.

Since Secretary Duncan first mentioned NCLB waivers in exchange for reform back in June, there has been disagreement about the plan and his authority to implement it. Rep. John Kline (R-MN) sees it as “handpicking winners and losers.”

The Department of Education plans to select peer reviewers to evaluate states’ applications for flexibility. States must submit their requests by Nov. 14, 2011 for December peer review and by mid-February 2012 for spring peer review. States that intend to request a waiver should notify the Department by October 12.

For more on the Obama Administration’s plan for ESEA flexibility, read Dana Goldstein’s article, “The Future of No Child Left Behind” on The Nation or Michelle McNeil's post "Obama: NCLB Waivers Not an 'Escape' from Accountability" on Ed Week's Politics K-12 blog.

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