In 2001, education reformers on Capitol Hill and the White House set a high goal for the nationís public schools: The No Child Left Behind Act would ensure that every child was proficient in math and reading by 2013-14. States would set proficiency targets and measure districts and schools on Adequate Yearly Progress. Progressively stern interventions awaited districts and schools that failed persistently to make the required progress.
As an aspiration, the goal of 100 percent proficiency is commendable. But the mandate is far from realistic, as the intervening years have made clear. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, estimates that by the deadline 80 percent of the nationís schools will be failures under the federal law. The Ohio Department of Educationís estimate is 90 percent of the stateís schools. In offering states the option to apply for relief, the Obama White House merely acknowledges the mandate is inoperable.
Ohioís application for a waiver was granted this week, one of 19 states to date given the go-ahead to replace achievement requirements. The relief comes with conditions, among them that state school systems improve teacher evaluations, close achievement gaps, ensure students are college- or career-ready at graduation and raise achievement levels in low-performing schools and student groups.
In return for the relief, the state has pledged, in addition to other key proposals, to implement rigorous academic standards, a new system for evaluating the performance of teachers and principals and a new A - F letter-grade rating system for schools and to cut by 50 percent the achievement gap in math and reading within six years.
Success depends on setting the right course from the start and making sure the state devotes the necessary resources to follow through. The responsibility falls largely on leadership in the Statehouse. Some key elements for a higher-achieving system already are on the books, among them the rigorous national Common Core curriculum and new teacher-licensing requirements. Other important pieces are stalled in controversy. For instance, language regarding Gov. John Kasichís proposal to change to a letter-grade rating system for districts and schools, a critical part of the waiver application, was stripped from Senate Bill 316 in the House, legislators complaining, understandably, about the clarity of the rating criteria.
The waiver represents a clear challenge, an opportunity and flexibility for Ohio to show initiative in creating a globally competitive school system that serves all students well. Ohioís application promises as much. The concern is how well the governor and legislators will manage the opportunity.