Obama Must Push for True Education Reform

Let's face facts: No Child Left Behind isn't working, and neither is avoiding a political showdown.

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With the debt ceiling behind him, President Obama remains saddled with a massive task that may not get as much attention as the economy but is the basis for it: reforming education. Over the past two years, Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have managed not to offer key leadership in the rewriting of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was proposed by and signed into law by George W. Bush and is due for reauthorization.  

While Bush and his administration presented a tightly written and politically controversial bill for reauthorization, Obama's recommendations are less detailed, possibly to appear less politically contentious. Instead, the Obama administration has tried to avoid politics by using state-by-state grant competitions and waivers to move education reform forward, but the jig is up.

The nation needs a new education policy, and political wrangling cannot be avoided. We need leadership on education, not the passing along of flawed educational policies like NCLB in hopes that each state will find its own way forward.

On Aug. 5, Duncan announced that he will be accepting applications from states to waive the goal that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. For those keeping track, we are nowhere near the desired proficiency levels. In reality, Bush's goal of 2014 equality was at best overly ambitious and at worst naive.

Regardless, in a rush to create standards and accountability, the nation adopted an educational plan that emphasized standardized testing, punished schools that did not meet standards and encouraged many schools to cheat their way to success. None of this has significantly improved education for our youths, and now the Obama administration has to find a path forward.

Allowing states to waive NCLB standards in exchange for states' acceptance of an unknown set of reforms approved by the Department of Education does nothing to address the flawed emphasis on the high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind and is akin to placing a Band-Aid on a wound that requires surgery.

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While Bush redefined the educational landscape by passing the law, the Obama administration has taken a free market approach. The introduction of the Race to the Top grant competition gave states a chance to compete for educational-innovation funds.

The catch was that in order to be eligible, states had to conform to standards set by the Department of Education. A few of these standards include creating a teacher-evaluation system, charter school expansion and adopting new turnaround strategies for failing schools. While these terms seem small on their face, in reality they are contentious and restraining.

For example, teachers' unions have been attacked in films like Waiting for Superman and cited as a reason for failing schools. At the same time, the newly proposed teacher-evaluation systems have also been found to be unreliable at predicting high-quality teaching. The NAACP recently sued the New York City Department of Education for illegally closing community schools in haste and privileging charter schools. The lawsuit is controversial because black families are overrepresented in both failing schools and charter schools.

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