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Obama's Education Policy: What Will Be the Legacy of His Second Term?

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In 2002, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was amended as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under then-President George W. Bush, few would have predicted that in the 10 years to follow, NCLB would become a household name, both vilified and praised.

In 2002 education was a common ground of sorts for bickering members of Congress. Despite concerns about NCLB and its laser focus on testing-based accountability, it was signed into law in the turbulent months that followed the September 2011 attacks, giving the president and members of Congress an opportunity to demonstrate a bipartisan effort around which they could move forward together.

It did not take long for educators and policy makers to discover that the implementation of NCLB, despite its intent to elevate education as the "great civil rights issue of our time," was difficult to manage well. The law's effort to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement for all student groups set well-meaning but unrealistic targets (e.g., 100 percent of students will score proficient in reading and math by 2014) and made two acronyms, AMO (annual measurable objectives) and AYP (adequate yearly progress), common and frustrating reminders that expectations were high for educators and school leaders, and that the consequences were not pretty. Fear of not making AYP (whether it be real or imagined) became such a pervasive force within public schools that school leaders faced hard choices about narrowing the curriculum and "teaching to the test" so that their students would make the AMOs required by NCLB.

A major criticism of NCLB is that it tends to over-identify schools as failing because of the many hurdles involved in demonstrating AYP. Indeed, in the 2010-11 school year, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at the George Washington University found that 49 percent of all public schools in the nation failed to make AYP, and that the percentage of failing schools would likely increase in the future.

And though the low-achieving students whom NCLB was designed to save from what George W. Bush famously called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" have made some progress in the last decade, the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers stubbornly remains. (In fairness, it must be noted that the reasons for that are myriad; the shortcomings of NCLB are perhaps one among many factors.)

In 2009 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, keenly aware of the criticisms of shortcomings of NCLB and the gridlock that was permeating Congress, focused squarely on incentivizing states to do better for those students who are most at risk, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program being the poster child for that strategy. Favoring what became known as the "tight-loose" approach (tight on demands, loose on means), Secretary Duncan's Department of Education set out to free states from the tyrannies of NCLB by waiving the most unpopular requirements of the law for qualifying states, including the 100-percent proficiency goal for all students by 2014. With reauthorization nowhere in sight, the federal waiver program is, as of December 2012, the law of the land for 34 states and the District of Columbia.

The question, however, is whether this is a good thing for public schools and the students they serve. While the secretary's Race to the Top program has been widely praised (despite no formal evaluation data to consider yet), the department's granting of NCLB waivers has raised many concerns, especially as it pertains to holding schools and states accountable for student achievement.

CEP's recent report, "What Impact Will NCLB Waivers Have on the Consistency, Complexity and Transparency of State Accountability Systems?" looked at how the new accountability provisions in states with waivers would compare with NCLB requirements and identified key issues to watch for as the new waiver policies are implemented.

For example, because the waivers allow states to develop more complex and multifaceted "indexes" for student progress, there is less transparency to educators and the public about how students are doing. Though capturing more dimensions of school performance to determine achievement is generally regarded as an important aspect of teaching and learning, it can cloud the waters when trying to ensure accountability among student subgroups.

The Obama administration appears confident that the waivers can both offset some of the challenges that states have faced with NCLB and maintain accountability and student achievement. It is still too early in the game for anyone to know what the post-NCLB era of education will mean for students, teachers and the nation, but one thing is for certain: Almost 30 years after President Reagan made the words immortal, we are still trying to figure out what it really means to trust but verify.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Joy Resmovits, click here. To read the companion blog post by Michael Lomax, Ph.D., of the United Negro College Fund, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.

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