This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With the deadline to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (more commonly known as No Child Left Behind) fast approaching, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has promised revision and reform of the controversial policy before the start of the next school year. Should Congress fail to meet this deadline, Duncan has said that he is prepared to work with states and issue waivers exempting them from the "perverse incentives" and sanctions they face under NCLB.
These waivers, however, do not come without a few strings attached, the exact nature of which Duncan has yet to flesh out. An Ed Week blogger said, "He offered so few details about what that relief would look like, that the reporters spent much of the call flummoxed over what the news actually was." The vagueness of Duncan’s ultimatum to Congress has generated speculation ranging from the indifference of lawmakers to questions of its constitutionality.
Duncan, who has already issued more waivers than any of his predecessors, has emphasized the need for more flexibility in evaluating school progress. If the law is not revised, Duncan estimates that four out of five schools in the nation will be considered "failing" as growing numbers are unable to maintain the yearly progress towards 100 percent proficiency in 2014 mandated by NCLB.
Duncan is calling this impending situation a slow-motion educational train wreck, a predicament in which states must "dumb down" their standardized tests in order to maintain the illusion of progress. He believes that the government should instead reward, not punish, states that set their bars high – even if that means more students inevitably fall beneath it.
"This law is four years overdue; it was written ten years ago, did some good things, but a lot of it is broken now. A lot of it needs to be fixed," Duncan stated in an interview.