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Obama offers states more flexibility to meet No Child Left Behind

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama unveiled a waiver program Friday that opens the door for states to sidestep education obstacles in the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law.

The new program gives states flexibility in the use of federal funds and on No Child Left Behind deadlines – as long as states adjust school policies to be more in line with the White House.

Arizona has implemented its own education reform in recent months – including new methods for evaluating teachers and an upcoming plan for measuring school achievement – but has not decided whether to apply for the Obama waivers.

“Anyone who’s ever met or known the superintendent (knows) he’s very careful and pretty deliberative when he makes decisions,” said Arizona Department of Education spokesman Andrew LeFevre, of state school Superintendent John Huppenthal.

“He wants to make sure that when he does make a decision it’s in the best interest of every child in Arizona and the education that they’re going to get,” LeFevre said.

The No Child Left Behind law was intended to bring accountability to the nation’s schools by setting ambitious goals for student achievement and teacher performance. But critics say the law has led to an overreliance on testing and encouraged states to set lower, more easily achieved goals.

“In order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom instead of a race to the top,” Obama said in a White House news conference Friday.

To be eligible for the new federal waivers, states must set standards in reading and math that better prepare all students for college or a career after graduation; recognize high-achieving schools while strengthening low-performing ones; and establish clear guidelines for evaluating and supporting educators.

“We’re going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future,” Obama said. “Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee – but every student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what state they live in.”

The head of an Arizona teachers union applauded Obama for responding to “10 years of really rigid focus on a narrow definition of student success, a narrow definition of school effectiveness, a narrow, incomplete definition of a qualified teacher and an overreliance on standardized tests.”

“In these waivers, you see the first signs that the feds are listening and getting us out from under these narrow, constrictive approaches,” said Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill.

The new program gives states more power to decide how to allocate federal funding to schools, with increased flexibility for rural districts, according to a White House statement.

It also removes the 2013-2014 deadline for schools to achieve 100 percent student proficiency – a widely criticized measurement based on year-to-year standardized test results for a specific grade.

In Arizona, the tests are administered to high school 10th graders, with No Child Left Behind comparing grades for 2009′s sophomores, for example, to sophomores in 2010.

“Most … will tell you that’s a terrible way to calculate the educational effectiveness of a school,” said Morrill, who taught high school English for 17 years. “You’re basically looking at an apples-to-oranges comparison.”

Though still reviewing the waiver requirements, Huppenthal supports the program’s intent to empower local education officials, LeFevre said.

“I know the superintendent feels very strongly that education decisions should be made at the most local level possible,” he said. “So any move to bring more control or power back to the state level from the federal level is a good thing.”

Morrill said he also welcomes the federal effort to turn the focus back to the state level.

“I hope there’s an opportunity for folks to ask educators how to do this better,” he said. “If the waivers lead to additional conversations at the state level, that’ll be a good thing.”

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