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.
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.
While education policy waits to be rewritten, the fate of black students and teachers hangs in the balance. Instead of negotiating politics and developing standards, the administration has hoped that bartering relief from parts of NCLB in exchange for acquiescence to the Department of Education's demands — plus Race to the Top dollars — will chase away the political differences that have stalled national education reform.
This could not be further from the truth. All over the nation, educational politics are becoming all the more contentious, and the clock is ticking on policies that take the nation in a direction that encourages achievement for all.
The NCLB revisions must be sure to outline the consequences for school districts that unceremoniously close schools and dismiss teachers, as well as the consequences for districts that linger with ineffective reforms. Additionally, the measure must make clear that high-stakes testing is not allowable for students or teachers.
Currently under the law, a day or two of testing can determine whether a school is a success or failure. Our schools are full of diverse learners and teachers. Bubbled-in test sheets cannot truly tell us what our children know, what they need to learn and how to teach it. We need assessments that give students and teachers the tools to improve education, not just label them as failures.
By waiving the 2014 test-scores goal, the administration is acknowledging how flawed these tests are, but at the same time these tests are being used to determine which teachers are fired and which schools get closed. Grant competition and waivers, while pleasing for a moment, are setting up the nation for policies that at worst are incoherent and at best put some states ahead of others.
National educational reform cannot be based on a competition that helps only a few or rewards exceptions to a rule. If education is "the civil rights issue of the 21st century," as Obama and Duncan have said, we must invest in programs that lead to equality for all, not competition for crumbs.
Failing to rewrite the national law on education is a fast track to greater inequality and sloppy reform. The politics of education reform are as treacherous as those of economic and immigration reform, but the administration must face these head on, not try to work around already flawed legislation. Building bipartisan common ground in education is tricky but necessary for the future of our nation.
R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York of the City University of New York. His research and writing specialize in education, race and inequality. Lewis blogs regularly at uptownnotes.com. Follow him on Twitter.