How Obama Got Schooled

Under pressure from right and left, the president signed away hard-won federal power over K-12 education and gutted his own reforms, even as they were working.

Barack Obama has not been shy about exercising federal power over the states, in areas ranging from health care to the environment. That’s been especially true in elementary and secondary education, where Washington spent $42 billion last year. Obama has leveraged federal school aid to promote higher standards, school choice, better tests, and more meaningful measures of teacher performance. When a paralyzed Congress couldn’t make needed fixes to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), he used a regulatory strategy to let states out from under the law’s most troublesome provisions in exchange for commitments to the same reforms.

But just before the December holidays, in a White House ceremony, there he was, like a captive in a hostage video, talking about the importance of “empowering states and school districts to develop their own strategies for improvement.” With that, flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, he signed a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the NCLB and put the direction of the nation’s 100,000 public schools and the welfare of fifty million students squarely in the hands of the states and the nation’s 13,500 local school systems—effectively allowing them to do as little as they please to improve educational quality.

What brought the president to that moment was an unholy alliance of powerful political forces on the left and the right. One is the Tea Party, the right-wing coalition that has subjected the Common Core State Standards, the latest in three decades of attempts to ratchet up academic rigor, to all manner of conspiracy theories as part of its anti-Washington crusade. Ironically, a primary author of the new federal education law, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, was George W. Bush’s education secretary and a leading proponent of using federal influence to demand accountability from states and school districts. But, capitulating to the rightward drift of his party, when he took over as chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last year Alexander set about drafting the new federal education law with conservative colleagues including Indiana Republican Todd Rokita, a Tea Party favorite and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. The federal government was “overreaching” in education, they argued, usurping authority over the direction of the nation’s $640 billion public education system that rightly belonged with state governments and local school boards. “Federalism is the point of our bill,” Rokita told me last year. “It restores local control in education.”

But Obama would not likely have put his pen to the new law if many of his Democratic colleagues in Congress hadn’t voted with Republicans and abandoned their previous insistence that the federal government be able to require states and localities to do right by students. But they did get on board, and for one main reason: teachers’ unions. Eager to end the Bush/Obama-era focus on school and teacher accountability and the probing light it cast on the performance of their members, the national teachers’ unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—inundated congressional Democrats and the White House with protests against “blaming and shaming” teachers, targeting the use of student test scores in teacher ratings as a way of discrediting school and teacher accountability en masse. They poured money into surrogate organizations like Fair Test to amplify their attacks against more-rigorous testing and encouraged parents to opt their children out of public school standardized testing (a campaign led, ironically, by the kinds of suburban white families who don’t think anything of spending thousands of dollars for hours of private tutoring to ready their students for college admissions tests). By the NEA’s own calculations, it sent 255,000 emails to Capitol Hill, made 23,500 phone calls, had 2,300 face-to-face meetings with lawmakers and their aides, and spent $500,000 on advocacy advertising in key Senate congressional districts on behalf of the NCLB rewrite.

Nor did the Clinton campaign attempt to talk Obama out of signing the new law. Though both Bill and Hillary Clinton have supported higher standards and accountability in education, the teachers’ unions have been pouring people and money into her presidential bid. And the passage of the new federal education law deprives Clinton’s Republican opponents of an anti-Washington stalking horse and allows her to narrow her education focus to preschool instruction and college affordability, two middle-class educational priorities.

What’s most troublesome is that federal demands for standards- and accountability-based reforms, though far from perfect, seemed to have made a difference. Since the NCLB’s signing in 2002, scores for black and Latino students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gold standard of national yardsticks, have risen, as they have for white students. And arguments from teachers’ unions and many middle-class parents that students are being subjected to excessive testing because of federal accountability rules have turned out not to be true, at least in comparison to other countries. A recent study of the educational practices of seventy developed nations by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris found that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the amount of testing their students undergo. Moreover, there’s a strong case to be made that the Obama administration’s hard-nosed demands for improvement on two fronts, academic standards and teacher performance, have paid off.

Before passing the NCLB, national leaders had been trying for decades to get local educators to ratchet up standards in response to the changing workplace and societal demands—especially the recognition that “local control” of education had long resulted in disadvantaged and minority students receiving substandard instruction. Back in the 1980s, when the federal government first proposed more rigorous high school curricula, states and school districts responded by channeling tens of thousands of students into watered-down courses where they earned English credits for “word processing,” science credits for “auto body repair,” and math credits for “commercial food preparation.”

But in the face of persistent performance gaps along racial and class lines, President George W. Bush built a bipartisan congressional coalition that pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2001. The law directed states to create “rigorous” standards, test students’ mastery of those standards, and hold local educators accountable for the results—a model Bush had used in Texas. It brought more transparency to public education and made all of the nation’s educators directly responsible for their students’ achievement for the first time.

The NCLB had plenty of flaws. It defined school success narrowly (the percentage of students meeting a state-set score on standardized tests rather than the improvement in students’ performance over the course of a school year), and remedies kicked in even if a relatively small number of students in a school lagged—causing states to lower standards rather than have many schools get on the law’s wrong side. The NCLB’s tight schedules for reporting student test results led state legislators to buy simplistic multiple-choice tests that were easily administered and quickly scored—but drove down the level of instruction in some classrooms, as teachers taught to the tests. The law’s unrealistic demand that 100 percent of the nation’s students achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014 was a big tactical mistake that undermined the law’s credibility. And the school choice remedy proved beyond the reach of many students.

With Congress gridlocked, Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, let states work around these problems in exchange for reforms that included the introduction of the new Common Core standards. And there’s evidence that the moves are working and that standards are finally on the rise.

In a recent study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the researcher Paul Peterson and colleagues reported that no less than forty-five states have raised their standards for student proficiency in reading and math since 2011, when the Obama reforms started to take hold. Peterson, who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign on education issues, attributed the gains to Obama’s reforms and has written that the Common Core “has achieved phenomenal success in statehouses across the country.” Similarly, Achieve, Inc., a Washington policy shop, recently reported that a long-standing “honesty gap” in public education—the sometimes striking differences between the high percentages of students rated “proficient” under many state tests and the much lower proportions of students in the same states rated “proficient” under the more demanding federal NAEP tests—has recently closed significantly.

Obama used the same incentive strategies to persuade states and school districts to get serious about measuring teacher performance. Before the administration stepped in, school systems were spending over $400 billion a year on public school teacher salaries and benefits without any real sense of what the money was buying. The standard evaluation model for the nation’s more than three million teachers was a single, cursory visit once a year by a principal wielding a checklist looking for neat classrooms and quiet students—superficial exercises that didn’t focus directly on the quality of teacher instruction, much less student learning.

Now, more rigorous teacher evaluation systems are under way in more than three dozen states. The deployment of the new systems has greatly strengthened many school districts’ focus on instruction. School officials have incorporated student achievement into calculations of teacher performance on a wide scale for the first time in the history of public education. The new systems are increasingly prioritizing ways to help teachers improve their practice rather than merely identifying bad apples. And the best of them are providing a foundation for a wide range of new, performance-based teacher roles that are making teaching more attractive. These changes simply wouldn’t have happened at anywhere near the scale they have without federal intervention, which is now being withdrawn under the new law.

The Obama strategy hasn’t been perfect. Many of the new teacher evaluation systems are in the early stages and there are plenty of implementation problems, especially with student-achievement measures. Secretary Duncan’s decision to have states use student test scores in new teacher evaluation systems and at the same time introduce the Common Core standards and the new testing regimes—a move some of his senior aides advised against—alarmed and angered much of the nation’s teaching corps and intensified anti-testing and anti-Common Core sentiment.

But instead of building on the Obama successes and addressing the weaknesses in the administration’s initiatives and in No Child Left Behind, the new law effectively gives states and school systems a free pass on educational excellence.

After heavy lobbying by school reformers and civil rights groups fighting what amounted to a rear-guard action against Alexander’s plan, the new federal law retains the NCLB’s requirements that states set standards, test students, report the results, and work with the lowest-performing schools—“guardrails,” in the words of the law’s sponsors. But the law demands only that state and local officials go through the motions in those areas; it’s silent on results and consequences. States can ultimately set standards where they please. And while they’re directed to improve the bottom 5 percent of their elementary and high schools with high dropout rates, there’s no meaningful federal enforcement if they decide to go easy on schools. Indeed, the new law makes it virtually impossible for the U.S. secretary of education to proscribe, enforce, or even incentivize rigorous academic expectations, quality tests, school performance standards, and the measurement of teacher performance—core improvement levers.

And while it’s good news that a relatively high percentage of states are expected to retain the Common Core in some form—now that they have started expending resources to implement the standards—the pressure from the Tea Party and the teachers’ unions has already led states to withdraw from the Obama-funded networks building the rigorous new testing systems based on the Common Core. Membership in one of them, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PAARC, has plunged in four years from nearly half the states to seven and the District of Columbia.

If there’s an argument against federal accountability, it’s that national policymakers shouldn’t micromanage schools. In the end, schools are only as good as the people in them and the culture in which those people work. So it’s crucial to get school communities invested in reform. National policymaking should be about expectations rather than execution.

But the new federal education law both gives local educators more day-to-day flexibility and liberates them from external expectations, a strategy that risks returning many students to second-class educational status. Rather than being a path toward a new paradigm in public education where all students are taught to high standards, it invites a capitulation to traditional race- and class-based educational expectations, half a century after the passage of federal civil rights laws and just as the nation is transitioning to a minority-majority school population.

When “local control” in education is looked at through the lens of what’s best for students rather than through the filter of adult agendas, it’s clear that we’re not going to get many of the nation’s students where they need to be without explicit expectations for higher standards in much of what schools do, and without the policy leverage needed to ensure that educators deliver on those expectations.

Thomas Toch

Thomas Toch is an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.