Is Obama Contradicting Himself On No Child Left Behind?

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President Barack Obama has given 10 states permission to pursue their school reforms without adhering to the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and another 28 states are expected to receive similar approval by the end of the month. Rather than dealing with the standards of a system that has been criticized for not improving student performance, schools will be given an alternative set of assessments that leave room for other factors.

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Kids are still going to be tested, but the tests are not going to be measured against federal standards.  Instead, state standards will be used, giving states the right to define their own objectives.

The original No Child Left Behind Act was signed by former President George W. Bush in 2002.  It sanctions schools that fail to meet particular standards by busing students to better schools and replacing staff.

“If we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone,” Obama said.

“The question is, did kids win?” Amy Wilkins from the Education Trust said to USA Today. “We won’t know that until we see how it plays out in classrooms across the country.”

There are also those who wonder if it is inherently contradictory for President Obama to dismantle No Child Left Behind, while continuing with a system that focuses on testing and uniform standards as the sole measures of student performance.  Professor Christopher Emdin of Columbia University applauds the decision made by Obama but still has his reservations.

“No Child Left Behind was the most powerful systematic way to keep students of color in the position that they’ve been … not successful.  It really focused on one single form of assessment.  It has never considered the fact that students are more complex than just receiving information and spitting it out,” said Dr. Emdin. “The big issue we have in education is acknowledging that our kids are different.”

Dr. Emdin is also concerned that President Obama’s move might be considered contradictory, given that his new system also relies on tests.

“His attempt to try to get rid of No Child left behind means he’s talking out of two sides of his mouth.  He created another system that is just another version of NCLB,” says Emdin. “The new system is just a reincarnation of the current system.  You’re saying, ‘No more teaching to the test,’ but your Race to the Top program is built on a single test.”

On the issues of racial inequality, economic inequality, and mass incarceration, the Obama Administration has come up short.  These issues have rarely been mentioned by the administration and this continues to be a disappointment.  But in the area of education, there is clear evidence that the Obama Administration is seeking to create productive change.

One can’t rightly determine Obama’s reasons for tip-toeing his way to an end to NCLB, but the president’s value systems appear to be in line with the notion of improving the educational system for all students of every background.

What is certainly clear, though, is that improving the educational system, particularly in the inner city, is critical for our nation’s future.  When we don’t educate our children, our national security is threatened and our economic future gets dimmer by the second.  The “War on Terror” during the last decade should be replaced by the “War on Inferior Education.”  It is a war we simply cannot stand to lose.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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