The Obama administration is giving school districts a waiver from some mandates of the No Child Left Behind education law.
The law requires schools to reach higher goals each year, and by 2014, it demands that every student be graded proficient in reading and math. The administration, which has repeatedly called on Congress to rewrite the legislation, says the law is overly punitive.
In an announcement on Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan opened the door for states to avoid the penalties and deadlines of the current No Child Left Behind Law.
States have long been clamoring for changes to the law. Its requirements have gotten so strict that Duncan says soon more than 80 percent of the nation's schools could be failing them.
June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina, says the law's all-or-nothing approach just doesn't work.
"It really labels a school that misses one target in the same category as a school that misses 99 percent of its targets," Atkinson says.
As of last year, only 27 percent of the schools in her state met the requirements. She says only a small percentage deserve the sanctions and intervention the law requires.
Tom Luna, the superintendent in Idaho, says his state is one of many that want to measure schools by how much progress individual students are making, but the current law discourages this. He says the way this plays out in schools is that a child could show up in September reading three years behind grade level. "And at the end of the school year, they could have gained two years of academic growth in one year. But because they are still not quite at grade level, we want to label that school as 'needs improvement,' " he says. "If we measure growth, we recognize that not only [is] that child is doing well but that school is doing well," Luna says.
Duncan hopes to offer all states relief from the law.
"Where folks are really doing the right thing for children, we want to give them a lot more flexibility — frankly, get out of their way and let them hit that higher bar," Duncan says.
He says the perverse incentives of the law have led to a dumbing down of standards in many states, including Tennessee, which just recently tightened standards to fix the problem.
"They raised the bar, significantly. Tennessee went from 91 percent of children proficient in math to 34 percent. That was a very tough lesson, but for the first time they are telling the truth," Duncan says.
Duncan says current law penalizes states for making changes like that. It labels schools as not meeting the grade and tells them what they can and cannot do with their federal dollars.
"We can't have a law on the books that impedes that kind of progress that stands in the way of that kind of courage," Duncan says.
The details of the new program will come out next month. But Assistant to the President Melody Barnes stresses that it will be rigorous.
"States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is going to move our education system forward," Barnes says.
House Republicans complained that the education secretary should have waited for Congress. Wisconsin Republican Thomas Petri says he understands Duncan's frustration, but he says the waiver program will be confusing and counterproductive.
"Rather than further centralizing decision-making in the secretary of education's office in Washington, it would be better to, with all its difficulty, let the normal constitutional legislative process unfold," Petri says.
But Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, says America's children couldn't wait any longer for Congress to snap out of it.
"We're caught in this sort of impasse, an inability to take action," Wilhoit says.
That's heartbreaking and dangerous, Wilhoit says, because a law designed to help all children succeed is instead stopping schools from improving.