How do you spell relief?

Inaction by Congress has school districts demanding direction or freedom to define ‘effective education’

In the Washoe County School District “Every Child, by Name and Face, to Graduation” is not just a catch phrase; it is taken seriously by our Board of Trustees, by Superintendent Heath Morrison, by departments, by schools, and most importantly by the individual classroom teacher. Envision WCSD 2015—Investing in Our Future, the District’s strategic plan, lays out a clear path of achievement for students and accountability for all District employees using goals and objectives.

Achievement targets and key performance indicators are set for every school and department in order to measure student achievement and department effectiveness. Having the accountability for meeting these targets and indicators is critical to how we measure for success or areas of improvement. In the WCSD, the Board of Trustees recently adopted an accountability policy, which details how schools and departments are to be held to the highest levels of accountability, including higher levels of student achievement.

Why all the discussion around accountability? With the current national debate around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and possible waivers from the U.S. Department of Education on some parts of the law, it is important to understand accountability will not go away, either in states or districts. It should not be interpreted that waivers allow states or districts to escape from higher standards for students. States and districts are willing to have high degrees of accountability and demonstrating the academic and learning growth of a student over time does just that.

It is worth noting that not all states and school districts have the same instructional standards to teach students, and therefore it is difficult to compare levels of student achievement using the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP. There is a great deal of difference among these instructional standards. Some states have very rigorous standards and others have had to lower their standards in order to meet the goal of AYP as defined by No Child Left Behind. There is little evidence to show a state or district that is meeting the mark for AYP is adequately preparing students to reach high levels of student achievement. Student achievement should be a measurement over time. The question should not be, is the student proficient on a single test? Rather, we should ask, is the student learning and demonstrating higher skill levels in order to be career and college ready and a productive citizen?

Imagine a person with a blindfold walking toward a cliff and that person keeps lifting the blindfold to peek to see when they might fall off the cliff. That is what districts are doing around the country. They are peeking and noticing the cliff in the form of reaching 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014. No Child Left Behind does not tell us anything as educators, policy makers or parents about graduating students college and/or career ready. Students are, in short, being left behind.

NCLB has not been reauthorized for several years. In fact, this is the longest period of time the law has not been rewritten since its creation as ESEA in 1965. In the meantime, districts are struggling under the sanctions of the law and districts are using enormous amounts of resources to fulfill the obligations of the law. This at a time when the majority of districts across the country are cutting budgets drastically.

The WCSD Board of Trustees recently adopted a resolution that is supported by national organizations such as the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators. The resolution recognizes the lack of movement by Congress on the reauthorization of ESEA and asks for relief through regulations by the U.S. Department of Education. The relief would be from further sanctions relating to the 100 percent proficiency target as well as some other more restrictive parts of the law. For example, allowing districts to have flexibility with federal program funding and not mandating certain programs that have shown little to no success at increasing student achievement. The resolution in no manner asks for any less accountability on the part of the District. It asks for flexibility to an outdated and antiquated system of measuring a school’s effectiveness.

The WCSD will continue to move forward with its reform agenda and will of course follow all federal and state mandates regarding NCLB in its current form. However, we are hopeful that whether through a waiver process, straight regulatory relief, or reauthorization of the law, a thoughtful and fair system of state, district, and school accountability can be created. After all, in the Washoe County School District, no child is left behind as it’s always about Every Child By Name and Face to Graduation.

Kristen McNeill is chief strategies officer in the Office of State and Federal Programs for the Washoe County School District.