The Obama administration believes that one policy area ripe for bipartisan cooperation and accomplishment is the reauthorization, and improvement, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind.
In his State of the Union message on Tuesday, President Obama said that, over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.
That has to change, Obama said, if the nation is to win the future and compete globally with nations whose school systems are now surpassing ours.
One way things have already changed, according to the President, is through his administration's Race to the Top initiative.
Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation, Obama said. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.
Obama emphasized that these higher standards were developed not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.
The President said a similar approach, of allowing the states significant input into educational standards, should be taken regarding the reauthorization of ESEA.
Obama said he wanted to replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan followed the President's lead by holding a press conference Wednesday, accompanied by U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-IA, Mike Enzi, R-WY, Jeff Bingaman, D-NM and Lamar Alexander, R-TN. The senators are the leading members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which Harkin chairs.
Duncan said these lawmakers have been calling for a reform of No Child Left Behind, which was passed under President George W. Bush.
Alexander, who was education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said the problem lies with too much federal regulation and too little leeway for states to run their own education systems.
I believe in national standards on education, but I don't believe Washington ought to set them, Alexander said. I don't want us to become a national school board.
Alexander acknowledged that the administration and Secretary Duncan have been working on giving more sway to the states on educational policy.
Duncan called NCLB far too rigid to allow states to develop their own policies.
Most people dislike NCLB's one-size-fits-all mandates, which apply even if a community has better local solutions than federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options. Providing more flexibility to schools, districts and states - while also holding them accountable - is the goal of many people in both parties, Duncan said.
That goal is problematic, said Scholastic's Alexander Russo, in an article on the Obama administration's blueprint, introduced last year, for fixing NCLB.
The most interesting and difficult part of the blueprint is its attempt to bolster accountability while allowing states and districts to use a variety of measures to determine school performance. It's not fully clear how the law can be loose on measures of performance without risking being loose on accountability, too, Russo said.
The administration said that it is intent on keeping the better parts of NCLB.
Both Republicans and Democrats embrace the transparency of NCLB and the requirement to disaggregate data to show achievement gaps by race, income, English proficiency and disability, but they are concerned that NCLB is driving some educators to teach to the test instead of providing a well-rounded education, Duncan said.
The administration said that NCLB focuses too much on proficiency, labeling schools as failures that do not reach certain levels of performance, while ignoring factors like improvements students may have made in certain areas.
There are too many ways for schools to fail in NCLB, Duncan said. But the new approach would provide rewards for high-poverty schools, districts and states showing real progress, especially in serving underserved populations and closing achievement gaps, the administration said.
Duncan said the reauthorization will have to do more to support and encourage teachers.
Almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers, he said.
The President's plan calls for getting more input from teachers on how to improve education, letting teachers collaborate more and placing the best teachers where they are most needed.
Obama emphasized the need for a stronger, more respected teaching profession in his speech.
We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones, he said. And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.
In fact, to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child - become a teacher. Your country needs you, the President said.
The administration wants to enact the new education standards law this year. The senators on the HELP Committee agreed.
Harkin said he expected to have a reauthorization bill ready for the President's signature by the end of the summer.