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This week the Obama administration announced it had released a total of 33 states from some No Child Left Behind requirements with the approval of Nevada’s application for a waiver from the law. “While well intentioned, the law’s rigid, top-down prescriptions for reform have proved burdensome for many states,” a statement from the U.S. Department of Education said.

But some states seem to be feeling the same way about the Obama administration’s own prescriptions for reform.

Obama education reform
(photo courtesy of Daniel J. Calderón)

Georgia is in a contentious battle with the feds over the money it won through the Race to the Top competition. The Department of Education has threatened to reduce the state’s award by $33 million after Georgia changed aspects of its teacher evaluation system following a pilot program. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal—who came into office after Georgia submitted its application for the grant—has said he refuses to “defend a system that we have been warned will not work,” and fears lawsuits if he proceeds under the plan the feds originally approved.

Hawaii is among a handful of other states that have also seen their grants jeopardized after missing deadlines and encountering other obstacles. In Illinois, federal officials are unhappy that the state is rolling out new teacher evaluations over the course of the next four years. That’s too slow, the feds have said, and they’re threatening to deny Illinois a waiver from NCLB requirements if they don’t speed up.

Illinois officials have balked at the pressure to move faster, however, saying that rushing risks getting it wrong. (Many low-performing schools in Illinois have to introduce the new evaluations this year.)

“It is really hard work to do well, and it is really high stakes, and we’ve got to be thoughtful,” Chris Koch, the Illinois school superintendent, told the Chicago Tribune last month. “We are not trying to dodge anything. … We’ve done a lot of hard work, and the feds should honor state sovereignty in this regard and let us work within the time frame we approved.”

Tennessee, which got its evaluation system up and running last school year, has faced criticism for moving too quickly, as has Louisiana, which is starting this year without having piloted some of the key components of its new system.

The Tennessee Department of Education released an evaluation of its own evaluation system this summer. Among its findings, which were largely positive, the report also said the following:

“District and school administrators spent considerable time in evaluation training demonstrating an understanding of the different levels of performance for observations, and all evaluators passed a test demonstrating this understanding. However, in implementation, observers systematically failed to identify the lowest performing teachers, leaving these teachers without access to meaningful professional development and leaving their students and parents without a reasonable expectation of improved instruction in the future.”

Pushing states to hurry up or to follow plans that experimentation shows may be faulty might attract criticism, but the Obama administration would probably also be attacked if it gave away federal money with no strings attached. (Although conservatives who think the federal government is overreaching would certainly be pleased.) So far, no state that’s applied for an NCLB waiver or won Race to the Top money has walked away.

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