During a March 14 speech at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, President Obama outlined several fixes to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and called on Congress to send him a bill that reforms the law before the start of the next school year.
Obama repeated an estimate originally given by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on March 9 that more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools would be labeled as failing under NCLB this year. Calling the percentage an “astonishing” number, Obama said the natural reaction is to “either be outraged that the numbers are so high, or skeptical that they’re even true.” For his part, Obama said skepticism is “somewhat justified” and added “we know that four out of five schools in this country aren’t failing. So what we’re doing to measure success and failure is out of line.”
Citing a need for more money and more reform, Obama pointed to Race to the Top as an example of the “bottom-up approach” needed in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB. Obama said NCLB’s goals—educating every child with an excellent teacher, raising standards, accountability, and a focus on achievement gaps—were the right ones. But he also cited the need to graduate students ready for college and careers and provide teachers with the pay and support they deserve.
Obama said he wants to move from simply identifying schools in need of improvement to helping them improve. “We need a better way of figuring out which schools are deeply in trouble, which schools aren’t, and how we get not only the schools that are in really bad shape on track, how do we help provide the tools to schools that want to get even better to get better,” he said.
To better understand whether students are making progress, mastering reading, math, and science, but also developing critical thinking and collaboration skills, Obama called for a new way to assess students. “That doesn’t mean testing is going to go away; there will be testing,” he said. “But the point is, is that we need to refine how we’re assessing progress so that we can have accountability without rigidity—accountability that still encourages creativity inside the classroom, and empowers teachers and students and administrators.”
Obama told students in attendance that they will need a college degree or advanced training if they want a bright future in the new economy, and he said that improvements in the nation’s high school and college graduation rates would help students and the nation’s economy. He noted that as many as one-quarter of American students are not finishing high school while the nation as a whole has fallen to ninth from first in the proportion of young people with a college degree.
“Turning these statistics around isn’t just the right thing to do for our kids—it’s the right thing to do for our economy, because the best jobs program out there is a good education,” Obama said. “The best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates. And that’s why, for the sake of our children and our economy and America’s future, we’re going to have to do a better job educating every single one of our sons and daughters—all of them.”
Obama closed his speech by talking about the current debate on reducing the federal deficit. He acknowledged a need to “get our deficits under control,” but stressed that spending cuts could not be done recklessly or irresponsibly. “Let me make it plain,” he said. “We cannot cut education. We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive.”
In reaction to Obama’s speech, Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, told The Hill, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, that there was a “common recognition” that the status quo is unacceptable and NCLB needs to be replaced. However, he added that he was not going to rush a rewrite of the law and do it wrong. “We need to take the time to get this right—we cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility, and parental involvement,” Kline said.