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No more No Child Left Behind: Local schools will benefit from Minnesota's waiver

Minnesota and nine other states have been granted a waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Minnesota's Education Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, joined President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in Washington today for the announcement. Other states that received waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Nearly 30 other states plan to seek waivers, as well, according to national news reports - demonstrating the general dislike among educators of the rigid requirements of NCLB. Many believe the law is unfair to students and schools, putting too much focus on 'teaching to the test' and punishing underperforming school districts even as they try to improve.

The waiver allows Minnesota to implement its own accountability system, which gives school districts more control over how to close achievement gaps in their own schools.

"Today we are one step closer to a system of accountability that puts students first," stated Commissioner Cassellius in a Thursday press release.

Cassellius has led the waiver efforts, using input from policymakers parents, educators and community members.

Under the new state system, schools will no longer be given labels that imply failure - nor the consequences that went along with those labels.

The Perham-Dent School District, for example, is no longer saddled with 'Needs Improvement' status. This will free up federal dollars that NCLB mandated be put toward staff development.

The New York Mills School District will also be affected. Dollars the district had been required to put toward staff development will no longer be necessary. NY Mill Superintendent Todd Cameron said the funds deferred for the required staff development has taken away from other things, like more staff.

Cameron said the waiver is "good for all schools because the punitive side of tests" are no longer hurting schools. The new waiver makes it possible to instead measure the growth of students over time.

Instead of the punitive labels of NCLB, Minnesota schools are now designated in three ways: as Reward Schools, Priority Schools or Focus Schools.

Most schools will fall under no designation at all. Only the top 15 percent (Reward Schools), bottom five percent (Priority Schools) and those that make the greatest contribution to state achievement gaps (Focus Schools) will be given a label.

A school's designation will be determined by four measures of school performance. Adequate Yearly Progress, which is mainly determined by standardized test scores, will be one of these measures. The others include: individual student growth, growth of student subgroups (such as special education), and graduation rates.

Reward Schools will be publicly recognized for their good work, while Priority Schools will work directly with the state to develop a turnaround plan. Focus Schools will work with their districts and the state to develop an improvement plan that specifically addresses the needs of low-performing student subgroups.

Schools that fall in between the top and bottom percentages "will still have expectations to meet, but won't be identified for anything," said Perham-Dent Superintendent Mitch Anderson.

Calling it "a step in the right direction," Anderson said the new system "doesn't pass the buck on accountability - I think we're all for that, we just want a fair model for it. And I think this has given us that. This is more along the lines of what we were hoping for."

The overall goal now is to reduce the achievement gap in Minnesota by 50 percent in six years. This replaces the NCLB goal of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 - a goal that most educators believed was unrealistic.

"I've always been opposed to the federal one-size-fits-all measurement," said Anderson. "Every district is so unique."

States that have not received a waiver will continue to operate under the NCLB requirements.