WATERLOO, Iowa --- States that reform their education systems could gain relief from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act under a plan announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Education.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Midwest reporters in a conference call that states that apply for a waiver can have the increased flexibility "in exchange for a real commitment to reform."
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's administration is expected to unveil a package of proposed education reforms Oct. 3. Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said in a statement that "we support and appreciate" efforts to improve the law.
"Iowa plans on responding to the calls for designing new school accountability systems," Glass said. "We will work with the major groups involved with education in Iowa and state policy makers to design a plan that makes sense for us over the long term. This work may begin before the end of 2011."
Duncan said the waivers can include "thoughtful and creative and nuanced" alternatives to the supplemental services and student transfer options required of schools that fall short of progress goals. He said that could mean "a whole host of options" like lengthening the school day or year and requiring the best teachers to work in schools that are struggling the most.
All but three of Waterloo Community Schools' buildings have been named as "in need of assistance" under the federal law.
Numerous students have transferred into the three elementary schools for the past two years, causing the district to install modular classrooms and shift preschool classes to other buildings to relieve crowding.
No Child Left Behind, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress in 2007.
"Both President Obama and I remain committed to working with Congress to reauthorize NCLB," Duncan said, noting the president asked lawmakers for the renewal five months ago. "Washington is now four years late in fixing the fundamentally flawed NCLB law."
As a result, the Department of Education is exercising its explicit authority in the law to grant waivers to states.
Glass, in his statement noted that No Child Left Behind "has done some very positive things" for often overlooked students, like those with disabilities or living in poverty.
"However, measures it prescribed to decide which schools were succeeding or failing were too narrow," he added. "Student achievement should be central, but we should also look at student growth and other aspects of schools beyond tests to see if they are successful for kids."
"Our role is to get out of the way where ever we can while supporting a high bar," said Duncan. States granted the waivers will be given "more control over federal funds to better meet the needs of their students."
He added, "It should reduce the pressure to teach to the test and narrow the curriculum."
While Duncan said federal officials "absolutely want" states reporting which schools aren't making progress toward achievement goals, the law labels the "vast majority" of schools as failing. "I think that's absolutely wrong," he said.
Lumping most schools in the same category of missing progress goals confuses rather than informs parents, he said. He wants schools to continue having ambitious goals but with standards that "really measures schools progress against them."