How Will Obama Tackle Education Reform?

As we count down to a second term, a look at his approach to the achievement gap.

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President Obama speaks at a Washington, D.C., high school as Education Secretary Arne Duncan listens. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president’s record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: the educational achievement gap. See previous postings in this series here.

Background: Racial and economic disparities in education — known as the “achievement gap” — have been stubborn parts of the American landscape of social inequality since long before President Obama was elected to his first term, and they persist today. As reform advocate Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a blunt speech in September, “As a nation, we are still far from truly achieving equal educational opportunity. In America, in 2012, children of color not only confront an achievement gap; they confront an opportunity gap that, too often, is unacceptably wide … Closing the opportunity gap will require that school resources, talent and spending be targeted to the kids who need help the most.”

When it came to improving education generally and addressing the achievement gap specifically, the Obama administration was quick to pick up the charge and has focused on it consistently, even taking on the not-yet-mainstream issue of racial disparities in school discipline, Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Root.

Vagins says that the administration was “very receptive” to addressing what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the idea that children are pushed out of public schools and into the criminal-justice system because of overreliance on racially discriminatory, punitive school discipline — among other issues with consequences for educational equality.

First-term accomplishments: Those monitoring the education strategy in President Obama’s first term saw a few general areas of focus: improving access to college, providing relief from the punitive aspects of the No Child Left Behind legislation (thereby giving states increased flexibility to improve their public school systems) and making improvements to early-childhood development.

Each of these efforts had potential for closing racial and economic disparities. For example, in March 2010 the Obama administration sent Congress a “Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” that addressed the “unintended consequences” of NCLB, such as lowered standards. It specifically outlined goals for “pursuing high standards and closing the achievement gap,” and included a focus on “diverse learners” and “turning around low-performing schools.” In addition, the president’s signature $4.35 billion Race to the Top program specifically incentivized states to close their educational achievement gaps.

Less frequently discussed is the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants program, focused on improving low-performing schools. Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe told The Root that two-thirds of the participating schools showed improvements in areas including reading, math, attendance and graduation rates. “We’re not declaring victory, but we’re helping to improve over 1,300 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools,” he said.

James Eichner, managing director of programs for civil rights organization the Advancement Project, praises the administration for “an emphasis in the Office for Civil Rights on college and career readiness, making sure [those who are] low income and of color are college- and career-ready.”

But the biggest victory with respect to the achievement gap? According to Eichner, it’s about the school-to-prison pipeline. “We’ve seen some good things out of both the Department of Education and the Justice Department through the Supportive School Discipline Initiative,” he said. “I think this administration really gets that zero-tolerance policies and harsh discipline are really a problem.”

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