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Posted at 1:45 PM ET, 03/13/2010

Obama and NCLB: The good--and very bad--news

By Valerie Strauss

George Bush could have not realized how much of a friend President Obama would be to his No Child Left Behind initiative.

Obama bashed NCLB when he was running for president, saying that obsession with high-stakes standardized tests was no way to run an education system.

But Saturday we learned the vision that Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have for the post-NCLB era, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t look much different.

Now that Obama lives in the White House, he seems to have developed a certain fondess for some of the key concepts of NCLB that essentially doomed it to fail: the high-stakes standardized testing regime, the punishment for the lowest-achieving schools, the arbitrary deadlines for success.

Yes, the Obama plan will eliminate some of the unrealistic mandates of NCLB.

The accountability system known as “adequate yearly progress” — the measure of how much progress schools, school districts and states made annually based on a cockamamie formula involving standardized test scores — will end. That’s good. Under AYP, even excellent schools were deemed to be failing.

But another arbitrary accountability system will be put in its place — and the current standardized testing schedule put in place by NCLB will remain. Very bad. The lowest achieving 5 percent of schools in every state will be punished even harder than under NCLB, according to my colleague Nick Anderson, who reported about the Obama plan today.

NCLB had a deadline of 2014 for all students in all public schools to achieve “proficiency” in basic subjects under a scheme that was impossible to reach.

Everybody knew it was illusory — even the legislators who passed it. Goals, they said, are good to set, even if they are unreachable. That may be true, but certainly not if that unattainable goal is connected to an unworkable accountability system.

The Obama plan understands that--at least about the 2014 deadline. But it sets up a new deadline of 2020 for states to have all kids on a path to “college and career readiness” — whatever that path is supposed to look like.

Teachers complained that under NCLB, curriculum narrowed to only those things that were tested (math and reading), that they wound up devoting too much classtime to test prep so the school could meet the AYP requirements, and that teachers were being given all the responsibility of raising student achievement but none of the decision-making ability.

Obama today promised to treat teachers “like the professionals they are.” What Obama and Duncan have in store for teachers makes one wonder just how they think professional teachers should actually be treated.

The Obama plan does include funds for schools to broaden their curriculum and bring back some of the subjects that lost their presence — the arts, science, history, physical education, etc. Good.

And he said that he doesn’t want to penalize teachers under the NCLB when their students don’t improve.

But one of the most egregious efforts promoted by Obama and Duncan would link standardized test scores of students to teacher performance evaluations and pay. That means that all of the other factors that might go into a student’s test score — whether they are tired, or hungry, or can’t see well, or have a toothache, or were distracted in class, or have test anxiety, etc. — don’t actually matter.

Until this point Obama and Duncan had been on the wrong education course, promoting their $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition in which states actually compete for funds by proposing reform plans that include initiatives Duncan likes. The losing states don’t get anything. Too bad for them.

NCLB had important goals: ensuring that every child in America had access to a quality education and was prepared to attend and succeed in college. The law, however, was doomed to fail by its very structure.

From the early looks of it, the Obama and Duncan education vision can’t succeed either.

I always cringe when school reformers say that what they are doing is only “for the children.” But, really, it’s hard to see how the kids who need the most help are going to get it from this new plan.

So many people had so many high hopes for Obama’s impact on education. How disappointed they are that he sounds like another George Bush.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 13, 2010; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, No Child Left Behind, President Obama, school reform  
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Next: On Obama (and Jay Mathews) and teacher accountability


Money has little to do with's the parents (or more commonly, parent). As long as the liberals deny the basic fact that dysfunctional families, fostered by their progressive policies, are the root of poor student performance no amount of money thrown down the educational black hole will solve the problem.
Posted by: Independent62 | March 13, 2010 12:47 PM
it's the parents

Poverty is the problem where it is common to neglect children from day one. Even the working poor have a difficulty in not neglecting their children when they are scrambling with multiple low paying jobs. Then there are numerous cases of poverty parents that have little if any knowledge of raising a child with the result that the child would be better off in a state run orphanage of the past. It is no surprise that so many children of poverty fail to learn. It is a wonder that any of them can learn at all.

To Americans likeIndependent62 this is the talk of bleeding heart liberals.

These American have no understanding that liberal thought began with the recognition that allowing the problems of the poor to be ignored simply created problems for a nation. Look at our ever growing prison population where most of the inmates come from backgrounds of poverty.

Keep on yelling "it's the parents" as more and more individuals in poverty areas are bound for the prisons and drains on the nation.

The President is just as bad with his politically correct pretense.

Poverty is a plague. You save as many as you can so that poverty does not grow. You have to stop pretending that teaching a child in a poverty area is the same as teaching a child in an middle class area. You start separating from an early age the children that can learn and the children that have been so damaged that they will never probably be able to learn. If you educate 75 percent you have decreased the growth of poverty and in the next generation you will be able to educate a higher number.

Political correctness only makes the problem worse.

But so many Americans would rather bury theirs heads in the sand and claim "it's the parents".

Posted by: bsallamack | March 13, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Excuse my post which was meant for
Obama’s contradictions on education and not this article.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 13, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse


You have the name wrong. It's not "Race to the Top", it's "Waste to the Top."

Posted by: jlp19 | March 13, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

It's not a waste. Think of it more as a stimulus package for consultants and pr firms.

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 13, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Good comment, Mamoore1!

Posted by: jlp19 | March 13, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

My office uses a few DCPS juniors as interns, and believe me, if 100% of their classroom time was spent on reading and math, that would be a GOOD thing. These kids are supposed to be the high achievers, and while they are motivated and interested in doing well, their reading, writing, and math skills are simply horrible. Some of them cannot write a simple English sentence. I look at their written work, and my heart sinks. I just can't see them succeeding in any college setting.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | March 13, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

As the quote goes, "Every complex problem has a simple solution. And it is always wrong." The President's underlying assumption seems to be that schools have the resources and know how to drastically improve student performance but are deliberately choosing failure and all they need is a reward or punishment from the White House. This is absurd. One of the greatest factors in student achievement is whether or not they have fathers. Punishing schools and teachers will not fix this. Rewarding schools financially for achievement basically means they prove they don't need your money so as a result you give it to them. Punishing schools for poor achievement basically means that you choose the schools that most need help and you withhold that help and you punish the teachers willing to work with most challenging students. It just looks like another in a series of Federal power grabs by this administration.

Posted by: sam38 | March 13, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse


Your opinions are the very reason members of the educational establishment have never been invited into the education reform conversation. If we did it your way, everyone would get promoted and graduated, regardless of their academic performance. You remember, just like public schools did for years.

Standardized test scores WILL be linked to teacher evaluations despite whatever protests you can muster. While they certainly should not represent the entire picture of how a teacher is performing in class they will be an enormous improvement in the system used over the past several decades. As anyone knows who has ever been a public school teacher, the subjective administrative evaluations of the past were an abject EMBARRASSMENT to the teaching profession.

At least now we will have some form of objective data teased out over time to indicate how a teacher performs.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 13, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

There are no good ideas coming out of this administration. They're like a bunch of old women, complain about everything anybody else is doing.

Posted by: garys_opinion | March 13, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse


Obama may be a hypocrite for first berating NCLB for his own political gain and, then, adopting it wholesale, again for political gain, but everyone is overlooking the most important feature.

He is renaming it so that it sounds more "caring" and better expresses the utopian ideals of his and his Social Democrat Party's socialist agenda.

Posted by: RUKidding0 | March 13, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Teaching in one of the most iconically depraved urban areas in America, South-Central Los Angeles/Watts, it would be too easy to blame the parents for their children's challenges. ALL ADULTS are responsible for children, and we must accept the blame, too. I cannot control what a child does before 8am and after 3pm, but a school can create a level of expectation and accountability for students to which they can strive. Give teachers REAL authority to control what happens at school, and eventually the children will step to the challenge. At first it would be ugly, but as always when the CHILDREN REALIZE THE ADULTS ARE SERIOUS, the children will 'step up their game,' too.

Posted by: pdfordiii | March 13, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't mind the idea of linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. As phoss1 says, the previous evaluations were subjective. (If the principal likes you, you get a good evaluation, if not, you don't).
I have taught in high poverty areas and my students always did well on tests. But I do think there has to be more respect for teachers. Kids can get the idea that if they do poorly on the test, the teacher will get fired. The wrong combination of kids can get going with this kind of thinking and purposely flunk.

Good point. I agree. I don't like all the parent blaming, but I also don't like the teacher blaming. The kids have to respect teachers or they won't learn anything, therefore the teachers and schools need real authority. You are making a difference-hang in there.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 13, 2010 11:36 PM | Report abuse


I do agree with your main points. The standardized test craze has made a ton of money for standardized testing companies. Have you seen any test booklets? They are beautiful, in color tests. Everytime I passed out those booklets, I wondered "How much money do these things cost?" People have started to confuse testing with education.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 13, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Let me guess!! The final bill will be 3,000 pages long and filled with bribes and kickbacks right?? This man has his hands in everything doesn't he?? A presidential bull in a china shop, destroying everything he can get his hands on before he leaves in 2013 or gets impeached! This president sucks!

Posted by: emmitfitzhume | March 14, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

I am vitally interested in system changes and see one of the best aspects of O's new initiative as the inclusions of the arts. With this balance, student test scores will rise, because many students are no good at math but are good in the arts. Creativity matters, since using it generates brain cells IN the intellectual frontal lobes. Let's trust that these initial changes are a thrust in the right direction. Of course parental influence on the classroom is huge. Of course there need to be more guidance counselors to identify children in need. Of course the system needs more money. Obama is just getting started. Let's applaud his seeking of ideas in Race to the Top - which, I might point out, are coming from everyone, including teachers, and see what transpires. The boat has caught the wind, let's see where it goes before we shoot it down.

Posted by: judyeaglelifecom | March 14, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

While Federal and State lawmakers try unravel No Child Left Behind and other ineffective legislation, they are missing the bigger issue: the education system in its current form is broken.

An “industry” rooted in strong tradition and plagued by unions – much as the US auto industry was just a couple of years ago – not only needs new measurements standards, but also a new architecture.

The current education model was developed almost 100 years ago and resembles a factory assembly line. Just as the outdated mass production model in Detroit almost became the demise of the US automotive industry, our current model for mass-producing students is bound for continued failure.

There is another option. Use budgetary constraints to gain flexibility from the teachers unions, just as the automotive industry did. Use the pressure of “no other option” to embrace innovation. Use innovation to create a student-centric education model that uses technology to identify and cater to each students learning style. Districts that embrace this new model will have engaged, performing students and the flexibility to address individual needs, including special education, more efficiently.

Harvard’s Clayton Christensen demonstrates an example of this in his book "Disrupting Class". While it may seem abstract, the student-centric model described makes common sense. Allowing technology to play a larger role in educating our children will likely produce more engaged students and greater success while easing education budgets.

With every challenge comes opportunity. Legislation alone will not create a more effective and efficient education system, there needs also to be a strong emphasis and investment in innovation.

- Ryan Duques

Posted by: RyanDuques | March 14, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

sorry, judyeaglelifecom -I was a strong Obama supporter. He has sold out and I'm not even sure to whom. His actions make no sense based on empirical evidence (which he says he follows) or politics. He's losing his democratic base over this and republicans only want to undermine his efforts on whatever he does. Even if they approve of some of his policies, they will never vote for him.

If he keeps up this way, I will do everything I can to support a strong democratic challenger in the next presidential primary.

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Ryan Duque for informing readers of your specific business interest and thus your motivation to encourage people to: “Use innovation to create a student-centric education model that uses technology to identify and cater to each students learning style.”

While your approach is interesting, I don’t see any basis, expect business promotion, for you to go on to make the assertion that, “Districts that embrace this new model will have engaged, performing students and the flexibility to address individual needs, including special education, more efficiently.”

You simply don’t know this. You hope for this, just as promoters of NCLB hoped it would improve education. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Ryan Duque - please check out

For respected, well designed academic research that refutes learning style theory.

If you know of other respected research with contrary results, I'd like to see it.


Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Just wondering how many folks who have already commented are inservice teachers. They sound like a lot of armchair educators to me.

And Valerie, please stop with the excuses. Your quote, "That means that all of the other factors that might go into a student’s test score — whether they are tired, or hungry, or can’t see well, or have a toothache, or were distracted in class, or have test anxiety, etc. — don’t actually matter." does absolutely nothing but give more credence to a crappy excuse for crappy teaching. When we entered the teaching profession--especially those of us who teach in DC and other urban areas--we KNEW what we were walking into, and we accept it. We can't slide by, not keep standards high, not communicate with parents, families, and outside resources when our kids our struggling, and when our students don't master the standards set forth, simply blame their socio-economic circumstances. That's a cop-out, and any teacher that uses it needs to get a job somewhere else.

Posted by: JustUs5 | March 14, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

JustUs5... I think you missed the point of the quote. The quote isn't supposed to mean "if you fail, blame poverty" (Even though family income is still THE biggest indicator for test scores). It is supposed to mean that even spectacular teachers' students will have off-days, and by putting so much emphasis on a one-off test is not only unfair, but unwise as well.
I mean, the Saints obviously stink because they almost lost to the Redskins, right?

Posted by: someguy100 | March 14, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

The system and philosophy of education was never designed to serve all children. Until that is changed, We are wasting our money.

It is unbelievable to see schools closing for the lack of money while we are wasting billions on tests that have nothing to do with children.

Most schools have their assessments that give immediate feedback to teachers. If politicians want to assess schools, use these and a whole bunch of other criteria.

What we are doing to children isn't simply unethical, it is immoral! We must Save Students from a Shattered System. And yes, if kids come from a war zone they do not learn at the same rate as the elite. And to justus5, It is "Doesn't" not "Don't"

Posted by: Caplee | March 14, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

justus5 - no - it's not the kids' fault that they suffer the effects of poverty. but somehow it's the teachers' fault if they can't undo that with "effective teaching" for 6 hours a day, five days a week, 9 months a year.

Teachers can have the finest attitude in the world, be subject matter experts and good teachers and still have many children in their classes who don't meet academic standards. Obama, like Michelle Rhee, supports firing teachers in this situation because they are underserving their students.

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

With so many scholars and experts in the field of education opposed to high stakes testing, and with so much evidence pointing to better ways to get and show achievement, why does President Obama think keeping this part of NCLB is what's best for kids?
When his wife spoke in Denver this past year, she told the teenage audience not to worry about this test. She said she didn't do very well on them either.
I'm not blaming any parent or child of poverty for how poor our schools are doing. I'm blaming policy and lack of teacher authority. We have no say but are continually trying to teach effectively in a system that won't allow us to teach effectively. The system is flawed.
What can be done to get rid of the over emphasis on one test. And this one test is not perfect. Even though I care about the other factors like sick kids, test anxiety etc. A child doing their absolute best may miss answers because the questions are worded in a way that don't make sense. We have no chance to know why a student answered the way they did.
How can we convince President Obama that this one test can not determine everything.
WahingtonDame, can you see the arts being tested using a multiple choice bubble sheet? Not pretty, huh?
Check out the literacy assessment standards created by NCTE and IRA and tell me how to assess literacy using a bubble in test sheet.
America is smarter than this. How do we convince President Obama of this?

Posted by: tutucker | March 14, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Do you think this column makes a difference? Who is listening to you? We can voice our opinions but what can we do to create change?

Posted by: tutucker | March 14, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I am also encouraged by the mention of the arts. However, I'm skeptical too. If it is not tested, it "won't count". I predict the arts, etc. will count indirectly in the few schools who get it right. They will have well rounded programs and lower the drop out rates with strong programs in many subject areas and stronger attendance rates. NCLB sunk most arts programs. These electives were eliminated, became overcrowded and unimportant in the eyes of administrators. As a supervisor once told me, "The principals are never asked, 'How are your foreign language programs doing?'"
Many "at-risk" kids used to tell me they came to school because of Language, Music or Art. The electives can get kids to buy into the system where reading and math can't. Oddly enough these programs are considered "elite".

Posted by: celestun100 | March 14, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

JustUs5, I, for one, am not afraid of using my kids’ test scores as part of a fair evaluation of my work. I am a little concerned about the human variables which don’t seem to figure in this bold, new scheme. I’ve had a child vomit on a test booklet (the booklet had to be bagged up and sent to the scorer anyway), another child crawled under a table and hugged his knees and cried (it was his first day in our school -- Testing Day!), another decided to draw flowers all over the margins of her test booklet because it looked pretty, one decided to mark all the “B” answers since that was easier than reading and answering the questions, and one whose father and uncle got into a knife fight with each other the night before testing, leaving him am emotional wreck.

Kids are human. They have bad and good days. Knowing that 50% or more of salary will depend upon these normal, natural, human foibles NOT happening is alarming. Interesting too that doctors’ pay is not based upon how many patients they cure, lawyers’ pay is not based upon how many cases they win, bankers’ pay is not based upon whether they bring the world economy to the brink of collapse, and politicians’ pay is not based upon how many good laws they pass.

Only teachers seem to warrant this treatment, aligning them with the widget maker on the assembly line who gets paid by the piece. Problem is children aren’t widgets and teachers can’t control for all the human variables that make this merit pay system so dangerous and potentially unfair.

Posted by: GooberP | March 14, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse


I suspect that the changes will continue to be top-down and teachers are mainly going to have to adjust. The good ones will find a way to work around some of this stuff. We all have been at meetings in which we are planning the school improvement plans and then go back to our classrooms and do our best to teach the kids. Sometimes the ideas from upstairs work and sometimes they don't fit our kids or our subject areas.
Teachers waste time endlessly documenting to prove that they have taught/communicated with parents, etc. It looks like proof on paper. That is what is demanded more and more. Not, does this student know anything? but, "How do the numbers look?"

How many times have administrators asked teachers to document what they have done to help a failing student, after the fact. Everybody comes up with lists of interventions and this report goes somewhere. Everybody spends time listing every phone call, every e-mail to parents. Wouldn't the time be better spent helping the student or planning for your classes or giving feedback to kids?

Posted by: celestun100 | March 14, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse


I agree with you wholeheartedly. But I think your points are what non-teachers do not get. I have read many comments where people seem to think that your examples of "human foibles" are excuses.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 14, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

The real Achievement Gap is the percentage of students that achieve At Advanced levels in real standardized tests.

Massachusetts leads the nation with a whopping 17 percent level at the Advanced Level of scores on the 2009 national tests of 8th grade students in Math.

The average scores for blacks in Massachusetts was the highest average score in the nation.

Oh, and for all the teacher bashers Massachusetts has a teacher's union.

Instead of the political Race To The Top there should have been a Race To Be Like Massachusetts with proposals from states indicating how they would implement the policies of Massachusetts. The proposal from Massachusetts would have been a single sentence. "Massachusetts will continue to do what it is doing in public education."

Posted by: bsallamack | March 14, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

With these new threats on teachers and educators, I doubt if very many students will be preparing themselves to enter the "profession." And I suspect many great teachers will be fleeing the profession. So who's going to replace all those fired teachers

Posted by: skspknows | March 14, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

spsknows asks, "So who's going to replace all those fired teachers"

Teach for america recruits! elite Ivy league grads right out of college, willing to put in a couple of years before they move on to their real careers. They will leave teaching before they ever get good at it. It will look good on their resumes and they'll make a fortune for teacher recruiting firms (staffed by former TFAers) who have to keep replenishing the ever overturning supply of teachers.

Who cares about the kids!

I'm waiting the tell-all article by an honest TFA grad, saying how it was great for them, but not so great for the kids.

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

The type of person you are describing would not even be aware that they didn't do anything for the kids.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 14, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

You got to love all the armchair educators. For all the decades of Americans performing poorly on every education measure devised, you would think all of these folks disappear once become adults for the sheer number of "experts" we have opining on modern warfare, economics, health care, and now education. Give it a rest people. You haven't even read what the Education Department has proposed, and you're already drawing lines in the sand around your uninformed opinions. If you really want to throw you opinion around, how about some of you actually show up for a school board meeting or conference with your child's teacher. You folks are pathetic.

Posted by: onifadee | March 14, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

The sad thing is that when these decisions are made they seem to overlook including TEACHERS in the process. Diane Ravitch, Arne Duncan, President Obama etc. have never taught in a K-12 classroom!

You are not going to get effective educational reform going until you include teachers in the decision making.

People who have not been in the classroom just don't understand the challenges. Also, people who have been in the classroom and then leave to become principals and other administrators soon forget the reality of the classroom.

A friend of mine who had had a variety of out of classroom positions and then became a principal signed up to teach summer school the summer before she started her job as principal. She said she wanted to have a taste of life in the classroom again before she became a principal. We were discussing how her summer went.

Her comments, "I was terrible the first couple of weeks. My discipline was awful! I'd forgotten how hard it is in the classroom!" She went on to be an excellent principal who respected and supported her teachers.

Unfortunately most educational administrators are not that honest with themselves or others. They look back on their classroom years (as few as three to five) with rose-colored glasses.

Please Mr. President, talk to the teachers before putting any program into action!

Posted by: Jutti | March 14, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

Does Obama listen to anyone other than those that support Arne Duncan's views?

Duncan messed up Chicago, now he is going to mess up the country.

Posted by: jlp19 | March 15, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Tests for students must be eliminated and replaced with attendance medals. The end result would be graduates that understood what their teachers were talking about and those that did not. Tests just add to the confusion and are not needed.

Posted by: melvin_polatnick | March 16, 2010 12:39 AM | Report abuse

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