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Obama eases No Child Left Behind burden for states

President Obama speaks on No Child Left Behind

WASHINGTON--President Obama pressed ahead with long-anticipated reforms to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act Friday, using his executive authority to allow states to opt out of some of the most controversial provisions if they produce alternative accountability measures for elementary and secondary students.

Under the new program, states will be eligible to apply for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would exempt them from the rigid achievement standards of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as it was reformed by the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001.

"The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable. President Bush deserves credit for that," Obama said in an address in the East Room of the White House. "High 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. Experience has taught us that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping."

Obama discussed familiar critiques of the law, saying that the rigid emphasis on standardized test scores has compelled many educators to "teach to the test," while subjects such as science and history have been "squeezed out" of grade-school curricula. He also argued that in some cases, it created a perverse incentive that saw states lower their standards simply to avoid receiving a failing mark that would result in penalties under the law.

A shortfall of qualified workers

Obama's push to reform No Child Left Behind comes amid growing concern that students in the United States--at all levels--are falling behind those in other countries. Obama noted recent studies that have highlighted the slipping position of U.S. education by many crucial metrics, including a prominent international report that ranked the United States No. 16 by measure of the proportion of young people with a college education. That eroding position contrasts sharply with other studies that found that an increasing number of U.S. jobs will demand a college degree, and that present graduation rates will result in a substantial shortfall of qualified workers.

"It is an undeniable fact as countries out-educate us today [they] are going to out-compete us tomorrow. But today, students are sliding against their peers around the globe. Today our kids trail too many other countries in math, science and reading," Obama said. "And that's true by the way not just in inner-city schools, not just among poor kids, even among what are considered our better-off suburban schools, we're lagging behind where we need to be."

The economy, in the short and long terms

Obama presented the education issue amid the more pressing--and headline-grabbing--state of the economy in the near term, putting in a plug for Congress to act on the jobs bill he presented earlier this month. That bill, among other things, would aim to put thousands of teachers back to work and modernize some 35,000 schools across the country.

Obama argued that just as the elevated unemployment rate demands urgent action, education reform is critical to ensure the longer-term economic viability of the nation's workforce. The two go hand in hand.

"We're in the midst of an ongoing enormous economic challenge. And I spend a lot of my time thinking immediately about how we can put folks back to work and how we can stabilize the world financial markets," Obama said. "And those things are all important. But the economic challenges we face now are economic challenges that have been building for decades now, and the most important thing we can do is to make sure that our kids are prepared for this new economy. That's the single-most important thing we can do."

Obama delivered his remarks in front of an assembly of students and educators, flanked by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat.

Power to the states

The core of the initiative the administration rolled out shifts the responsibility for education reform and improvement back to the states, an acknowledgement that the federal mandate under No Child Left Behind resulted in an overly rigid, one-size-fits-all framework that overlooked the nuances of each state and district.

"One of my highest priorities is to help ensure that federal laws and policies support the significant reforms underway in many states and school districts and do not hinder state and local innovation aimed at increasing the quality of instruction and improving student academic achievement," Duncan said in a statement.

Under the reforms, states that are granted waivers will be exempt from the No Child Left Behind requirement that they demonstrate 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Instead, they will have to produce an ambitious set of alternative college- and career-ready standards in those subjects that meets certain Education Department criteria, an approach the administration and many governors believe will lead to better prepared secondary graduates.

The Education Department has identified 46 states, along with the District of Columbia, that are developing assessment systems geared toward college and career advancement. Most states are expected to apply for the waivers available through Obama's reform initiative.

"We believe that we are most qualified to make our own decisions about how to continue our progress in making certain that every child is career- or college-ready. I look forward to the federal government narrowing its role in education," Haslam said. "Education decisions are best made at the state and local level."

Friday's announcement from the White House comes after more than a year and a half of requests from Obama to Congress to reform and reauthorize the law, which has been overdue since 2007. But despite the concerted efforts of some lawmakers, little progress on the issue has been made, prompting Obama to take action by executive authority.

"Congress hasn't been able to do it," he said. "So I will."

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