Do Obama's Education Policies Stack Up to His Goals?


No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law mandating standardized testing as a measure of school success, is not working and needs to be reformed. This was the thrust of a speech by President Barack Obama, who repeated, "We have to fix No Child Left Behind" five times while speaking at a Virginia middle school on Monday.

"That's why I'm calling on Congress to send me an education reform bill I can sign into law before the next school year begins," he said to applause from the Kenmore Middle School gym, packed with teachers, students and parents.


The president argued that while the goals of NCLB — higher standards, teacher accountability and closing the achievement gap — are good ones, the policy, which imposes sanctions on schools that fall short of its set standards, is too rigid, underfunded and ineffective. He pointed out that, under the current system, 80 percent of U.S. schools are labeled as failing, including schools that are making remarkable progress.

"First we're going to have to fix how our schools are labeled and identified," Obama said, pushing for more individualized assessments rather than the one-size-fits-all bubble-test approach currently used. "Instead of measuring students based on whether they're above or below an arbitrary bar, we need to set better standards to make sure our students are meeting one clear goal — they're graduating from college and ready for a career."

The president's newly released education reform blueprint (pdf) also zeroes in on the poorest schools in the country. He's called on states to identify their lowest-performing schools and take bold action to transform them — including, for example, firing bad principals and teachers. On the other hand, Obama repeated his call for increased support for teachers, particularly in the form of better training, more classroom funding, and higher salaries. "We're going to have to start paying good [teachers] like the professionals that they are," he said.

President Obama's proposal for fixing NCLB  is a departure from his usual focus on his keystone Race to the Top grant program, in which states must compete for additional funding with plans to reform their education system. I spoke to John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and an outspoken critic of Obama's educational policies, to get his take on the president's new strategy.

"I appreciate the fact that president is pushing legislators to reform No Child Left Behind because it is needed," he said. "But it has to be true, transformational reform. To the degree that the legislators reach some bipartisan consensus that equals just a tweak in the plan, I think we would have missed an important opportunity."

Jackson is skeptical that President Obama's actual policies hold up to the status quo-shattering ideas he espoused in his speech. "It's one thing to say that we need to do this, and it's another thing to align the resources so that the results can actually occur," he said. "The resources, even as they have flowed throughout this administration, have not always been aligned with the education goals that the president has outlined."


For example, Jackson cited Race to the Top grant money that has rewarded states for enacting policies that tie teacher evaluation to student performance — an experimental idea, he says, with no evidence of creating more effective learning. Jackson is none too thrilled, then, that Obama's NCLB plan builds on Race to the Top, opening it up to school districts. He contends that instead of testing individual approaches, the president should tackle more comprehensive measures, such as equitable resources for all states.

"The true measure is what's laid out in his legislative agenda, and if you look at the blueprint, there's not a lot of discussion around equity there. Not a lot of discussion of the use of technology or how we approach English language-learner students," he said. "The speech was encouraging to hear, but it's very difficult to separate his speech from this official document that came from his administration."


The NCLB reform debate that the president is gearing up for will no doubt shift as it proceeds, but it will take a lot more than tinkering around the law's edges and expanding Race to the Top to have his desired effect. The question is: Will the final bill go much farther?