The Department of Education’s letter to Virginia requesting modifications to the Commonwealth’s No Child Left Behind wavier was good news if you want to see a more robust accountability system. Virginia officials are rightly miffed that [to some extent] they’re getting busted for the same thing other states are doing. But that points up some larger issues for the waiver policy (and everyone is probably lucky that even though all the information is in public view no one actually reads it…). Anyhow, with Virginia poised to make some revisions in September here are three things to keep an eye on in the Old Dominion (and by extension in other states):
1) Are the “annual measurable objectives” (AMOs) ambitious enough? Lost in some of the furor about the race/ethnicity/income-based nature of the targets was the simple fact that they were not ambitious. Setting intermediate targets that are differentiated by socioeconomic characteristics is not inherently outrageous – and is essentially current policy by default under No Child Left Behind and existing waiver authority. You don’t unwind generations of regressive education policy in an instant. What’s more, a legitimate critique of No Child Left Behind is that it spread school improvement efforts too broadly. But the answer to those issues is not to focus accountability so narrowly that only students in the absolutely worst-performing schools get any help. That would have been the effect of the targets Virginia adopted. And it’s certainly not to adopt the thinly-veiled racial and socioeconomic determinism that characterized some of the public debate about Virgina’s plan.
2) Do the AMOs take you somewhere worth going long-term? Not only should they be ambitious, but the AMOs should set Virginia on a course to where this sort of differentiated accountability is not needed. Or put plainly, are the new targets ambitious enough to close gaps? For instance will we see dramatic gap closing within a decade or twelve years – so for this year’s kindergarteners. 1oo percent proficiency is not necessary but aiming to have less than six in ten poor and black students proficient by 2017 doesn’t set in motion the level of effort that is necessary to change educational trajectories.
3) Does the rest of the waiver plan support the short and long term planned AMOs? Perhaps the most depressing and embarrassing aspect of the peer reviewers response (pdf) to Virginia’s waiver request (which was originally denied) is the striking lack of confidence in Virginia’s accountability system and commitment to gap closing. More of the same is not going to fundamentally change a system that is failing too many students. Are the supports for struggling students and schools adequate? Will schools genuinely be turned around and will those turnaround be sustained? If the state wants to rely on its own accountability system is it any good (Virgina’s really isn’t) or are there plans in place to make revisions? More generally is the state going to take on bigger issues around teacher preparation and other contextual factors?
Again, those aren’t just Virginia questions and issues, they’re worth asking in a lot of states.