Last week’s NAEP score release is occasioning plenty of debate. Some of it is predictable – people who used to live and die on NAEP scores now see anti-reform touchstones DC and Tennessee doing well and suddenly it’s ‘move along, nothing to see here!’ Others just want to skewer the Obama Administration or their favorite target. But there are also important points being raised.
In particular while it’s too soon to know for sure and it’s easy to over-read one NAEP administration (and you can cherry pick data in NAEP to show just about anything) these scores do seem to offer some early evidence that the shift from NCLB to Race to the Top and waivers is on. The concern about the NCLB-waivers wasn’t that the No Child law didn’t need substantial revision (at that point almost a decade since it was first passed everyone agreed that it did). Rather, it was that easing two decades of federal pressure around school accountability would usher in an era of even greater uneven performance than already existed or slower performance gains. Accountability, for all its challenges, does drive at least modest progress. That’s clear from the research. So some analysts worried that under the waivers states would undoubtedly excel but at the same time others would back off. (Tennessee’s governor was there, for instance, when the Obama Administration first announced the waiver so you expected they would continue to be bold there. States that came later to it….).
There are pluses and minuses to the No Child approach and to the Obama approach as well. It’s foolish to pretend that either (or any other policy for that matter) is without costs and benefits. But last week’s results indicate it might be time to have a conversation about how much variance we’re willing to tolerate amongst the states in the name of having the feds back off.