The big news in the edu-world this week is that the feds are dangling something juicy in front of states sick of No Child Left Behind: A chance to wave aside the law’s stringent testing goals.

The big catch is what they want in return and whether California is prepared to deliver it.

No Child Left Behind sets targets for student testing that critics say are unrealistic. Because the bar rises every year, more and more schools are considered failing, so many that the label is losing meaning. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it “a slow-motion train wreck” in The New York Times.

Many edu-folks are excited about the waiver idea. Ric Hovda, dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University, told the Union-Tribune it’s time to “stop and take a careful look” at what changes need to be made to the law.

There’s a big question that hasn’t been answered. What exactly do the feds want in return?

The Obama Administration says it’ll waive the rules for states that agree to other reforms, likely the same kinds of reforms that the feds pushed for in Race to the Top, a competition between states for federal money. That includes using student test scores to evaluate teachers, an idea vehemently contested by teachers unions.

And that’s where it could get sticky. Thoughts on Public Education blogger John Fensterwald argues that California would face tough odds to get out of No Child Left Behind:

Duncan and others have indicated that states would have to commit to conditions for reform similar to those required of states seeking money from Race to the Top: using a statewide data system to inform decisions; creating teacher evaluation systems based on multiple criteria, including student test results; taking actions to turn around the lowest performing schools; and adopting career and college readiness standards. California at this point might flunk the first three of the four measures.

Over at Education Week, Alyson Klein reports that the biggest teachers union in the country derided the idea as just making states jump through more hoops. She has also been tracking which states are giving the idea a thumbs-up:

Of course, it’s probably pretty easy for state officials to cheer the administration’s waiver plan when there aren’t any real details out yet. It will be interesting to see how many of these folks are still on Team Waiver when the administration gets into the nitty-gritty. For instance, South Carolina seems to be on board with the waiver plan, but it didn’t want a Race to the Top grant that could have come with similar strings.

There are also some bigger questions at play here about how the Obama Administration is using the frustration with No Child Left Behind to try to push other plans. Conservative Education Week blogger Rick Hess writes that “this all represents a pretty novel theory of waiver authority … letting states ignore federal legislation in return for promising to do other stuff that they like.”

“I’d think that Obama would want to tread real gingerly here, as a Romney or Perry administration could use this play to wreak havoc on health care or financial reform,” Hess added.

John Merrow at Learning Matters argues that the U.S. Department of Education still isn’t looking at what strikes him as the root of the problem with No Child Left Behind: more and more testing in reading and math. He explains:

Popular curricula — no doubt created in response to NCLB — emphasize (and drill in) the skills of reading in ways that actively teach children to dislike or even detest reading itself, because the goal is high scores on reading tests, not ‘a nation of readers’. The net result is children who can read but basically hate it.

And blogger Alexander Russo is just plain skeptical about the whole thing, chiming in that “folks will promise pretty much anything to Washington whether or not they’re ever going to do what they say.”

Spot more great blogging and reporting about the idea of relaxing the rules on No Child Left Behind? Please post links here on the blog or send them my way by Twitter!

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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