The Obama administration wants states to focus more of their attention on the lowest-performing schools, where large numbers of students are failing state tests year after year.
So the Department of Education is inviting all states to apply for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law.
The waivers could win relief for schools where a small number of students are falling short of federal requirements.
But advocates for minority and special education students worry their students will be ignored.
The 'Failing School' Stigma
Mill Creek Middle School in Lusby, Md., is sunny and bright, the halls are orderly and students look engaged. In fact, most are passing state tests in reading and math. It doesn't look like a "failing school."
"We are by no way, shape or form a failing school. Do we still have some work to do? Absolutely," says Principal Rebecca Bowen.
She sounds frustrated because according federal and state standards, this is a failing school: Low-income and special education students were about 10 points behind the goals set on standardized tests under No Child Left Behind.
Bowen says she's already working on bridging that gap. She points to a math class, where the teacher is using a special intervention for students who are not yet proficient according to state tests. The school regularly tests students who have been identified as struggling and has enlisted teachers to help with Saturday instruction in the hopes of losing the "failing" label.
These are the kinds of efforts that Maryland is likely to highlight if it applies for a waiver, so that schools like this one can escape the stigma of the "failing school" label.
That word "really damages the sense of efficacy of the staff, of the students," says Calvert County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith. "And it also undermines the credibility of the school, and the confidence of the families."
Focus Should Be On The Worst Schools
According to the administration's plan, Maryland should focus on truly failing schools — the dropout factories — where vast number of kids can't read or do math at grade level.
Schools like Mill Creek Middle School, where most students are doing fine, could escape sanctions.
In fact, the White House proposal would cut some slack for 85 percent of the nation's better schools. But there are plenty of struggling students, even at successful schools. What happens to them?
Iris Bond Gill with the Campaign for High School Equity points out that the very reason No Child Left Behind was passed was that many states were ignoring populations of kids who needed extra help: kids with learning disabilities, or those from challenging backgrounds.
"Historically, this really has been the role of the federal government, in terms of interventions with low-income students and low-income schools," Gill says. "And that's a role we don't want to see the federal government backtrack on."
The Department of Education says no schools will get a complete pass under the waiver plan. To get those waivers, states must prove they have a system in place to ensure all students are making progress. The department says it will use one criterion in judging states' application for waivers: Is it best for students?
State and local educators say there is no chance things will return to the bad old days. They point to data tracking systems that gauge student progress, and to programs like those at Mill Creek Middle School to help struggling students.
Sandy Kress helped write No Child Left Behind when he worked for the Bush administration. He says the Obama administration's plan to grant carefully designed waivers is a big risk. "If they do this right, it's good," he says. "If they do it wrong, it's a step backwards."
The administration has portrayed the waiver plan as a chance to loosen federal strings, and let education reform bloom in the states. But if the feds back off too far, some wonder whether some kids will fall off the map.