Obama: ‘No Child Left Behind’ Changes Will Allow States to Meet Higher Standards

President Obama said today he is giving states the freedom to waive central requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, a 2001 education law that he said was admirable in its goal but that ultimately hurts students more than its helps them. 

“We can’t afford to wait for an education system that is not doing everything it needs to do for our kids,” the president said in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it and replace it with something that does. We’ve got to act now.” 

The sweeping changes to the nation’s education system will effectively end the accountability measures at the heart of the Bush-era education law and allow states to opt out of the 2014 deadline to prove students are proficient in math and reading. 

In exchange, states must adopt the president’s education agenda and enact changes that the White House deems necessary. To qualify, a state must adopt “college and career-ready” academic standards, link teacher evaluations to student performance and create an accountability system that reports the lowest-performing schools and the largest achievement gaps. 

“Starting today, we’ll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards,” Obama said. “Keep in mind the change we’re making is not lowering standards.  We’re saying we’re going to give you more flexibility to meet high standards.

“In fact, the way we’ve structured this, if states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards that prove they’re serious about meeting them.” 

No Child Left Behind allows states to set their own goals for academic success but they risk losing federal education funding if their students fail to show “adequate yearly progress.” Critics, including Obama, say the system encourages states to “dummy down” standards to report better progress. 

“Experience has taught us that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them,” he said. ”Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test.  Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out.  And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states perversely have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom, instead of race to the top.”

The president did, however, commend his predecessor for making strides toward improving the nation’s schools. “I want to say the goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserves credit for that,” he said. ”Higher standards are the right goal.  Accountability is the right goal.  Closing the achievement gap is the right goal.  And we’ve got to stay focused on those goals.”  

Obama urged Congress in March to send him a new education law by the start of the new school year, but little progress has been made. “Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” the president said. “I’ve urged Congress for a while now:  Let’s get a bipartisan effort, let’s fix this.” 

House Education Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., accused the president of playing politics and potentially derailing progress in Congress to rewrite the law. “While I appreciate some of the policies outlined in the secretary’s waivers plan, I simply cannot support a process that grants the secretary of education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers,” Kline said Thursday. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and every single American should be extremely wary.” 

The administration says

 the waivers would not undermine continued efforts by lawmakers to revamp the legislation.