President Obama Discusses New 'Race to the Top' Program

Michael D. Shear
Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 2009; 5:29 PM

Q Your predecessor was famously identified with the phrase that summed up his education agenda, No Child Left Behind. And it could be explained in a single sentence -- "Test all students every year to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps." What phrase could sum up your education agenda? And if you had to pick it, what single sentence could explain it?

THE PRESIDENT: We want to challenge all the stakeholders -- parents, teachers, unions, school administrators -- to not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure that there's a focus on low-performing schools, by making sure that the standards that have been set are ones that mean a kid who graduates can compete at the international level.

Now, I know that's a very long sentence, but I got it in there.

(Laughter.) I think that the phrase, No Child Left Behind, was a great phrase. The problem was when you talked to folks on the ground, there was a feeling that, number one, the assessment tools that were used were too brittle; number two, that the federal government didn't provide the resources or the best practices to actually achieve those goals. And so what often happened was you'd get school districts that were either resistant to raising their standards, or would actually water down state standards in order to appear like they were meeting them. And there was never, I think, enough direction to schools about how do you really improve teaching quality, how do you really focus on the quality of principals.

So what we're trying to do I think is not to replace the notion that every child can achieve, but rather to put some meat on the bones.

Q If I may, wouldn't it cause some children to be left behind if you raise standards?

THE PRESIDENT: Not if you're putting in the resources to make sure that they can achieve. We do a child no great service by setting a low bar that it appears they can meet until they graduate and can't find a job because they don't have the skills.

In Chicago, we went through this argument at the time that was very controversial -- Peter will remember this -- but in retrospect seems obvious, which was ending the practice of social promotion. This notion that we should just graduate kids because they've reached a certain age and we don't want to embarrass them, despite the fact that they may not be able to read, that is a disservice to students; that's a disservice to parents.

And what we want to do is raise standards, but also provide the kinds of best practices, with money behind it, that evidence shows allows every child to meet these standards. And that's what this Race to the Top is all about.

Q Let me ask you about the Race to the Top. No administration as far as we can tell has ever provided this amount of money with so few congressionally mandated strictures on how it should be spent.

There are critics out there who say it's essentially a blank check, and they worry about the accountability of where that money is going.

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