Nebraska educators are saying, “We told you so.”
Congress can't agree on what to do.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Nebraska's public schools, even some high-performing suburban schools, are facing federal consequences after the federal No Child Left Behind law this week labeled them in need of improvement for failing to meet academic targets.
This year, 87 Nebraska schools joined the list of schools deemed in need of improvement — a list that has now grown to 286, about two-thirds of the state's public schools. Among the schools added this year were Millard North and Millard West High Schools, two high fliers in academics.
Educators say it's the result of unreasonable academic targets built into the law, which max out this year.
Millard Superintendent Keith Lutz called the spiraling list of schools “crazy,” but he said educators warned this would happen as the targets rose.
“This isn't anything new that we didn't tell them in 2001,” Lutz said.
Iowa education officials reported similar results earlier this week, with nearly two-thirds of its public schools on the in-need-of-improvement list.
At a press conference Friday, Scott Swisher, Nebraska's deputy education commissioner, expressed frustration that Congress still hasn't rewritten No Child Left Behind. He said educators are wasting time on compliance and should not be forced into seeking waivers that come with a set of different but just as onerous rules.
“Do your job, Congress, and get this thing fixed,” he said.
As more of the nation's schools run afoul of the law, U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., believes President Barack Obama will, on his own, waive the targets, according to Terry spokesman Larry Farnsworth.
The Obama administration has already granted waivers to 42 states in exchange for adopting other accountability measures favored by the president. Requests are pending for four other states, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nebraska has not sought a waiver.
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., in a statement Friday, said the federal government's role in education “should be limited and well-defined.”
“As a strong advocate for local control of schools, I opposed No Child Left Behind because it gives the federal government a significant degree of control over administering education,” he said. “Should education legislation come before the full Senate, I will work to ensure that individual states and districts have the flexibility to respond to the needs of their students.”
The No Child Left Behind law passed by Congress in 2001 was a bipartisan effort that arose from concern in the late 1990s that schools were graduating kids who weren't prepared for success in careers and college.
Now the criticism is bipartisan, though some critics still give the law credit for making sure that schools paid attention to achievement of racial groups and special education students.
No one's holding their breath that Congress will reach agreement on a bill to reauthorize the law. Front-running bills are far apart in their approaches.
Last June, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Strengthening America's Schools Act. It is pitched as offering states flexibility, but critics say it includes new requirements for state accountability systems and ties funding eligibility to states' adoption of certain prescriptive teacher evaluation systems.
The House's attempt at reauthorization is the Student Success Act, passed in July.
It is pitched as returning education policy to the states, replacing the targets known as “adequate yearly progress” with state-determined accountability systems.
It would also eliminate federally mandated actions and interventions currently required of poor performing schools.
Harkin has said there are significant differences between the two pieces of legislation that have to be reconciled.
Diane Stuehmer, in charge of federal programs for the Nebraska Department of Education, said state officials inquired a year ago about freezing the targets and were told the only way was to apply for a waiver.
Beginning with the current school year and until reauthorization takes place or Nebraska gets a waiver, the target for reading and math performance is having 100 percent of students proficient.
Even before that target takes effect, schools have increasingly fallen short of the rising state goals. They must meet them not only for students overall, but also for various subgroups — such as racial groups, low-income students and those in special education.
Millard West, for example, fell short in 2011-12 when less than 79 percent of low-income and special education students met the state reading standards. In 2012-13, the reading target went up to 89 percent, and the school missed it not only for special education students but also for the overall student body — although Millard West's low-income youths did meet the higher target.
In math, where the 2011-12 goal was to have 61 percent of students proficient, Millard West's low-income and special education students didn't meet that standard. A year later, only the special education students fell short of the new 80 percent proficiency target — but that was enough to put the school in the “not met” category in math for a second year.
Schools and districts have to miss the targets for two consecutive years in the same grade span and subject area to be listed as in need of improvement. The result is that a lot of schools will likely fail to make target for the first time in 2013-14. If they fail again in 2014-15, the consequences for Title I schools — high-poverty schools that receive federal money to help — would kick in the following year.
There's a downside to being listed as “needs improvement,” beyond the public shaming.
Sanctions start out small but ultimately call for corrective actions such as replacing half the teachers or the principal or even closing the school.
Stuehmer said the biggest worry for districts is that listed schools are required to set aside 20 percent of their Title I allocation for programs to help struggling kids.
Targets for the number of students proficient in math and reading have risen steadily to the new 100 percent level. Having all students proficient “makes as much sense as saying every United States senator will run the 50-yard dash in 5 seconds,” said ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools.
“We don't all hit the same performance standards at the same time,” Kehrberg said.
Nebraska officials have made it clear that waivers come with their own accountability.
In exchange for the waivers, the Obama administration has required states to adopt “rigorous and comprehensive plans” to improve outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity and improve the quality of instruction.
States could apply to waive the targets if they set new “ambitious but achievable” targets.
Stuehmer said that in other states those have been also set at 100 percent proficiency.
States must adopt college- and career-ready standards, either Common Core or standards certified by a network of institutions of higher education.
States still have to have assessments to measure student growth in grades three to eight and in high school, have an accountability system that provides a way to intervene in struggling schools, and must evaluate teachers and principals on a regular basis, taking into account student academic growth as a “significant factor.”
Lutz said educators warned politicians that with the rising targets, eventually “we'd all be on the list.”
“You can only push the system so hard to get as much out of it as you can,” he said.
“Nebraska, in particular, but the metro schools, compared to the rest of the country, do a super job.”