President Obama visits with teachers at Canyon Springs High School in Las… (Carolyn Kaster/AP )
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of articles examining President Obama’s record.
In 31/2 years in office, President Obama has set in motion a broad overhaul of public education from kindergarten through high school, largely bypassing Congress and inducing states to adopt landmark changes that none of his predecessors attempted.
He awarded billions of dollars in stimulus funding to states that agreed to promote charter schools, use student test scores to evaluate teachers and embrace other administration-backed policies. And he has effectively rewritten No Child Left Behind, the federal law passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, by excusing states from its requirements if they adopt his measures.
Under Obama’s framework, teachers with weak ratings tied to student achievement could lose their jobs, while high ratings could mean bigger paychecks. And children in 45 states and the District of Columbia will for the first time follow a set of common standards aimed at raising achievement, with a third-grader in Hawaii expected to know the same things as a third-grader in Maine. One result will be that children at all levels will read less literature and more speeches, journalism and other “informational texts” to prepare for life after graduation.
Obama’s agenda has amplified ideas that have been simmering around the country, including those championed by Republicans, among them the push to give parents more choice about where children attend school and to blast apart a long-standing system that rewarded teachers for longevity but not necessarily effectiveness.
The president has said changes are needed to close the persistent gap between poor and privileged students, drive up high school graduation rates and produce a workforce that can compete globally.
But it is impossible to predict whether his policies, which are years from full implementation, will work. There is little or no research showing that these measures lead to better-educated children or higher graduation rates. Unions and some parents contend that Obama’s approach overemphasizes testing and crowds out the arts and other subjects.
There is wide agreement, however, that the administration has been particularly successful at pushing through its flavor of education policy.
Critics see overreach
“They’ve taken their concept of reform, like it or not, laid it out very directly, put the resources around it and moved to drive state practices,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan group that represents state education officials.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he recognizes the effort the administration has poured into education, even as he argues that Obama has overreached.
“They’ve been extraordinarily aggressive and engaged,” he said.
The Obama education agenda, which relies on competition, accountability and other market concepts, has provoked controversy around the country.
Last week, unionized teachers in Chicago walked out of their classrooms for the first time in 25 years in a strike over proposals similar to Obama’s, including revamped teacher evaluations and ending job security based only on seniority.
Civil rights groups also have raised questions about Obama’s proposals, worried that stepping away from No Child Left Behind will ease pressure on states to help poor children perform as well as their wealthier classmates.
Going around Congress
Obama was able to propel change two ways. With states clamoring for relief from No Child Left Behind, and Congress stalled five years over reauthorizing it, the president forged ahead with his agenda rather than waiting for Congress to act.
He used his authority to issue waivers from No Child Left Behind to 33 states.
The administration also leveraged $4.3 billion in stimulus money that Congress approved for education, creating a series of competitive grants known as Race to the Top, pumping to a new level this type of award. In the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, federal officials dangled the stimulus money to persuade struggling states to make big policy shifts.
“They’ve pioneered it,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative research group. “Making states compete for a limited pot of money and awarding it to the most serious state is pretty unusual.”
So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have won grants, but more than half of the states have tried — and each had to adopt policies favored by the Obama administration in order to compete. That led 28 states to change a total of 100 laws or policies, the Education Department reports.
The California legislature, for example, threw out a law that prohibited schools from using student test scores to evaluate teachers.