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Feds grant NY a waiver to swap new promises for NCLB rules

New York State will be freed from the most onerous requirements of the decade-old No Child Left Behind law, under the terms of a waiver awarded today by the U.S. Department of Education.

In exchange, the state will begin assessing districts and schools on their students’ progress instead of simply their performance — and districts that fall short will get extra funding and support starting this fall.

Lists of lagging schools, which will now be known as “Focus” schools, will be released by the end of June, according to a State Education Department spokesman. The state will also publish lists of “Reward” schools that will merit extra funds because of their strong performance.

The Obama administration introduced the waiver program as a way around Congress, which so far has declined to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, renamed No Child Left Behind during George W. Bush’s presidency. NCLB required all students to be “proficient” by 2014 in a quixotic that goal left more schools labeled as failing each year without urging states to action.

“The waiver lets New York move away from NCLB requirements that were unproductive or unrealistic,” said State Education Commissioner King in a statement. “We can evaluate schools in terms of both student growth and proficiency and recognize schools in which students are making good progress toward meeting standards of college and career readiness.”

To get a waiver, states had to commit to prioritizing college readiness, setting guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations, and holding schools and districts accountable for their students’ performance on state tests.

New York submitted its waiver application in February. In feedback about the application delivered last month but not released until today, the U.S. Department of Education said the application reviewers had concerns about New York’s capacity to execute some of its commitments. In particular, it questioned whether school districts would adopt new teacher evaluations and whether the state would develop local assessments to measure student and teacher performance by the 2014-2015 school year.

The state assuaged those concerns when it revised and resubmitted the application. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would penalize districts that have not adopted new evaluations by January 2013. But some districts, including New York City, have so far failed adopt to new evaluations, even after previous deadlines.

New York City had seemed to present another potential complication to implementing the state’s waiver promises. A provision of New York’s waiver request stipulated that New York City would be treated as 32 separate school districts for accountability purposes. The city has shifted many responsibilities from geographic districts to philosophical “networks” in recent years, but a Department of Education spokesman, Matthew Mittenthal, said department officials were confident that they would not have to revise schools’ support structures in order to meet the waiver requirements.

New York was one of eight states to receive waivers in the second round of waivers today, bringing the total number of waivers awarded to 19. The other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Five of those states were, like New York, winners of the Obama administration’s first two state-level Race to the Top competition. Eighteen other states have applied for waivers but have not yet received them.