Education waiver gives Minnesota flexibility

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota education officials say the waiver from the strict requirements of the No Child Left Behind education law will give them the flexibility and resources necessary to help struggling students. President Barack Obama announced the waiver on Thursday.


Instead of relying on one high-stakes annual standard test to determine if students are making “adequate yearly progress,” as defined by No Child Left Behind, Minnesota schools will use four indicators, said Sam Kramer, the state department of education’s federal educational policy specialist.


No Child Left Behind primarily affects schools with students from low-income families. Now, Kramer said, academic proficiency will no longer be the only measure of how the state is doing. Minnesota will also look at students’ growth from year to year. It will also look at how well schools are doing at reducing achievement gaps between white students and students of color, and focus not just on overall graduation rates, he said, but graduation rates for specific subgroups.


The bottom 5 percent of schools will be designated as “priority schools,” and they’ll have more flexibility to shake things up, Kramer said. The next lowest 10 percent will be deemed “focus schools,” and he said the state will work with them to reduce achievement gaps.


But Kramer said Minnesota will also recognize top-performing schools and determine what they’re doing right so struggling schools can adopt the best practices.


School officials said they’re relieved that they’ll get credit for students who are improving but not yet catching up to their peers. They also say teachers can focus more on a child’s overall education and less on teaching to achievement tests.


“It really takes some pressure off our teachers and allows them to teach, to work with individuals and to grow,” said John Thein, superintendent of Roseville Area Schools.


Tom Dooher, president of the statewide teachers’ union Education Minnesota, called the waiver good news. But Dooher, in a statement, said the union was concerned that the achievement gap goals in particular would be hard to meet without significant new spending for things like early childhood education and smaller class sizes.


No Child Left Behind is driven by test scores, penalizing schools that repeatedly fail to make adequate yearly progress by taking money away from those schools. The money is used to bus students elsewhere and fund outside tutoring.


“The old law had a lot of stick in it, and this has a lot more carrot,” said Donald Pascoe, director of research, assessment and accountability for the Osseo Area Schools. Pascoe said No Child Left Behind costs his district about $500,000 per year. Since money will now stay in the district, he said, the schools might choose to expand early childhood education or summer school programs, among other things.

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