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Creative Non-Compliance

I usually like this term. It means we might as well bend some rules, if the need justifies it, and normally, this term is associated with good deeds. But, Secretary Arne Duncan’s attempt to start creatively non-complying with NCLB may not be about good deeds, as much as he suggests it is. Throughout the weekend, news reports screamed that Duncan will be granting waivers to a law carefully and painfully put in place to guard against the kind of data abuses and lack of transparency that plagued the nation prior to NCLB’s enactment.

Secretary Duncan granting personal waivers.

Secretary Duncan granting personal waivers.

Sure, NCLB is not perfect, and Congress and the past president made lots of mistakes. But the fact is that without NCLB, we simply don’t have a clue how schools or students are performing. We can argue some bars are lower and some higher, that some schools that get labeled do so unfairly. For the most part, however, it works. It shines sun on the dirty little secret of even the best schools that neglect their neediest students. And it captured our attention and put the establishment on the defensive. Most important, it gave parents a tool to use as a lever for change.

I’m not sure 82 percent of schools are really failing or that Duncan believes that. I think he wants his own lever, and Congress isn’t playing. Duncan wants to give well-meaning states and districts flexibility away from NCLB mandates. It’s too punitive, not flexible enough, he says. This from the man that wants national standards, which are hardly flexible!

Perhaps this is just a way to fulfill pre-election promises. The president did tell the unions that he’d fix NCLB. We have never quite understood how, but money was mentioned, as was more flexibility.

Republicans in Congress agree that NCLB is rigid. Congressman John Kline (R-Minn.) has been clear that he wants to fight the right balance of carrot and stick. They have bought some of the school board arguments about fairness and funding, but they also understand that throwing out the baby with the bath water gives the establishment a pass. So they are taking their time — months so far, not years — to figure out what is the best formula for both ensuring accountability for funding one receives while at the same time, giving them more leeway to respond to the pressure.

The public needs to know what we’re getting for the money we spend. Waivers don’t make parents’ jobs easier – they make school administrators’ loads lighter. I’m not for that as long as more than half of all school kids still can’t do most subjects proficiently. Let’s stop worrying about lightening loads and focus on getting kids into successful schools, punitive-feeling or not.