By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A01
President Obama proposed overhauling the No Child Left Behind law that was his predecessor's hallmark education initiative, aiming to eliminate several of the measure's controversial mandates on public schools but adding new ones.
Students would still be tested every year in reading and math under Obama's proposal, but scores in other subjects could also be used to measure progress, addressing concerns of parents and teachers who say the law has shortchanged such topics as history and science.
The president's proposal to Congress, released Saturday, would place more importance on academic growth than the current pass-fail approach to judging schools. If a student were to start class work three grade levels behind and move up two by the end of the school year, that would count as a victory. Now, it is rated a failure because the student is still behind.
In the 41-page blueprint, Obama wrote that his proposal "is not only a plan to renovate a flawed law, but also an outline for a re-envisioned federal role in education."
President George W. Bush considered No Child Left Behind one of his signature achievements because it brought new attention to achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and those who are better off. Large bipartisan majorities in Congress voted for the measure. But soon after the law took effect in 2002, its emphasis on standardized tests drew criticism from some quarters.
Obama came into office a critic of the law, and many of his supporters hoped that he would dump it. Teachers union leaders were disappointed Saturday by Obama's proposal, saying it puts an unfair onus on educators.
His plan would replace an annual review of public schools that experts say has been losing relevance as a growing number -- one in three as of the 2008-09 school year -- fail to meet academic targets. He wants a new accountability system within four years, one that would require states to verify that all students by 2020 are on a path toward "college and career readiness" and that would clamp down on the lowest-performing schools as never before.
The proposal would authorize $29 billion in aid for schools, a 16 percent increase. Most of the new money would be delivered through competitive grants, rather than formulas that would spread it more evenly among states.
"Schools that achieve excellence or show real progress will be rewarded," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, "and local districts will be encouraged to commit to change in schools that are clearly letting their students down."
The president telegraphed his position on a stringent accountability policy March 1 when he expressed support for a decision to fire the staff of a struggling high school in Rhode Island, enraging teachers unions. However, Obama pledged in the Saturday address to treat teachers "like the professionals they are."
Teachers union leaders reacted skeptically.
Obama's plan "appears to place 100 percent of responsibility on educators and gives them zero percent authority," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said after being briefed by administration officials.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said the plan does too little to help teachers, tens of thousands of whom are in jeopardy of layoffs because of budget shortages in the coming school year.
Obama's proposal comes as lawmakers embark on a bipartisan effort to rewrite the 2002 law. House and Senate committees have held hearings on the expansion of public charter schools and the lagging performance of U.S. students on international tests. Republicans say their work with Democrats contrasts starkly with partisan battles on other issues.
Rep. John Kline (Minn.), ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said parts of the proposal don't square with Obama's talk about more flexibility for states. "As a starting point for debate, this blueprint will certainly spark strong opinions from across the spectrum," he said.
Whether a bill can be passed before midterm elections in the fall remains uncertain. Still, the proposal adds to the growing sense that public education is on the verge of major change.
Several states competing this year for federal grants have proposed moving toward performance pay and evaluating teachers based on student achievement. On Wednesday, governors and state schools chiefs proposed common academic standards in math and English that seem on track for adoption in many states. New standards would affect textbooks, curriculum and teacher training across the country.
On Friday, Education Department officials briefed reporters, governors and interest groups. "From what they showed us, we like it," said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It looks like a significant departure from No Child Left Behind and the kind of thing we'd like to see done sooner rather than later."
Under the law, states are required to establish annual benchmarks toward a goal of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014, with students tested in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Although many students are exempt, that goal is widely seen as unreachable.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Obama's plan would eliminate "many perverse incentives" in the law, which led some states to lower standards in order meet their benchmarks.
The plan calls for a transition through 2014, officials said, as higher standards are approved and more sophisticated tests developed. It is unclear what will happen until then but eventually a new system would kick in, rating schools on academic growth or stagnation.
States would be required to identify at least three kinds of schools for intervention.
Those in the lowest-achieving 5 percent would be required to close, replace at least half their staff, switch to independent management or take other aggressive action, including replacing the principal, to raise achievement. Those in the next-lowest 5 percent would be placed on a warning list and expected to take major steps. Another 5 percent of schools, those with the widest achievement gaps, would be required to narrow those disparities. Schools would be rewarded for making large gains.
Former education secretary Margaret Spellings, Duncan's predecessor, praised what she called "a more nuanced approach" to accountability. But she criticized Obama's proposal to drop a requirement that students in certain schools that repeatedly fall short be offered tutoring and transfers.
Those mandates, she said, have helped hundreds of thousands of children. Preserving school choice, she said, "will be a rallying cry and unifier for Republicans."