Friday, April 25, 2014

When Washington Waiver Is Washed Away, Will We Waive Weeping?

Arne Duncan, King of All Schools, has banished Washington State to an earlier age. Stripped of their flexibility (our current word the law-cancelling edict that cabinet secretaries can apparently issue), the state must now tumble back into the unloving embrace of No Child Left Behind.

In the short term, this is terrible news for the state. Under NCLB, this is the year that we should all have reached 100% proficiency-- every single, solitary student, no exceptions, should be scoring above average on the state evaluation. If they don't, then Terrible Things are supposed to happen.

But in the long term, this may very well be great news for all of us.

As of September, every single school in Washington will be failing. Every single school in Washington will be under a mandated turnaround. In the most extreme application of the law, every school could be stripped of staff, administration, and funding, and then handed over to some turnaround company to fix them. And that would be good.

Look at it this way. Duncan just engineered what some activists have been dreaming of-- a complete walkout of teachers across an entire state.

Teachers know this one-- it's the nightmare we all had when we started, the nightmare where all the students in your room get up and walk out and dare you to try to give every single one of them a detention. And you wake up feeling a lump in your gut because you know you never could. How do you punish EVERYBODY!??

Actually forcing an implementation of the nuclear options in NCLB will hold it up to public ridicule ("Wait-- our local school is in trouble because the three kids who got arrested for blowing up mailboxes didn't pass the test?") and create a bureaucratic nightmare (How many DOE officials does it take to take over the daily operations of every school in the state?). The result would be logistically unmanageable and politically unsellable.

What are the possible outcomes?

Duncan could negotiate a blunting of the impact by somehow reducing the penalties for statewide failure. At worst, this could create inconvenience in the state that makes the law and the DOE look stupid. At best, it could cause other waiver states to declare, "Hey, that doesn't look nearly as painful as trying to implement all this idiocy that King Arne decreed! Hey Arne! We'll have some of what they're having!"

Congress could get off its collective ass. There is plenty of reason to hate Duncan's unilateral installing of the waiver system, but it's also true that it wouldn't have happened if Congress hadn't spent almost an entire decade playing Hot Potato with ESEA reauthorization. You can complain about the executive branch usurping legislative power, but if the legislative branch didn't leave the keys to the car just lying on the coffee table all the time, maybe junior would not feel tempted to go joy-riding.

I don't care if they're hypocritical about it, or badly disingenuous, as long as they say, "Yeah, that law is broken. Let's fix it." And then do so. That would lead to all sorts of interesting federal arguments about education, and I would never utter "It couldn't possibly be worse," (because it always can be), but it would give us a fighting chance to make things better.

Washington's school system could be messed up so badly that a huge tidal wave of backlash washes away all the reformy nonsense that we've been choking on, and the reformista's status quo would finally fade into the past. I don't wish that kind of disaster on anybody's schools, but as anybody who has learned enabling bad behavior knows, sometimes in order to get better, you have to let things break.

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