Nation of learners: No Child Left Behind waivers can be teaching tools

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When "No Child Left Behind" was passed by Congress in December 2001 as Washington's latest attempt at education reform and improvement, it had support all over the political rainbow.

President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy pushed the plan. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum voted for it. But it didn't take long, once the law took effect, for parents, educators and lawmakers to realize that the goals of NCLB were unrealistic.

Although NCLB's Pennsylvania targets in 2004 required 35 percent of students to test as proficient or better in math and 45 percent in reading, the proficiency bar rose each year until 2014 when it will require 100 percent of students to be proficient in both subjects. Reality tells a different story.

With that in mind, President Barack Obama invited states in 2011 to seek a waiver to allow them to substitute their own performance and accountability plan for the goals of No Child Left Behind. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania became the 41st state to receive a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Far from leaving Pennsylvania off the hook, the waiver will enable the state to use a more realistic standard for improving schools.

Under Pennsylvania's new School Performance Profile, each public school will earn an annual score that is based on test participation, performance, graduation or attendance rates and progress made in closing certain achievement gaps. It's a different yardstick, but it should still focus the attention of schools and the state on how to help students learn and succeed. But the change shouldn't end there.

States with waivers need to share best practices with other states in attaining higher student performance. A 2012 study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress of the waiver applications submitted by 26 states said that some of them were "pushing new ideas, many of which are promising or innovative." The report called on the Education Department to establish a national clearinghouse of new tools and strategies so that states and districts can learn from the successes and challenges elsewhere.

We couldn't agree more. Students have a lot to learn, but so do schools and states.

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