Full Text February 9, 2012: President Barack Obama’s Speech on Education Reform & No Child Left Behind Flexibility Waivers



Everything You Need to Know: Waivers, Flexibility, and Reforming No Child Left Behind

Source: WH, 2-9-12

President Obama delivers remarks on No Child Left Behind (February 9, 2012)

President Barack Obama, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, delivers remarks on education reform and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind, in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Explaining that our kids can’t wait any long for Congress to act, President Barack Obama announced today that ten states that have agreed to implement bold education reforms will receive waivers from the burdensome mandates of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.  These waivers will give states the flexibility needed to raise student achievement standards, improve school accountability, and increase teacher effectiveness. The ten states approved for flexibility are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

So what does all this mean for our schools? What’s the problem with No Child Left Behind? What’s a waiver anyway, and why do states need flexibility? To answer these questions, we’ve put together a quick primer to help you understand the details behind today’s announcement.

What’s the deal with No Child Left Behind?

No Child Left Behind, the most current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was signed into law in 2001—and is five years overdue to be re-written by Congress. The law’s objective was admirable. It shined light on achievement gaps and increased accountability at the school level for high-need students. And there’s no question that setting goals and holding schools accountable for meeting them is central to an education system that prepares students to compete in a global, 21st century economy.

As written, however, No Child Left Behind has serious flaws. In fact, some of the law’s requirements are actually stifling the kind of reforms we need to really improve student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school accountability. For example, it determines whether schools are falling behind based on test scores. It imposes punitive labels and prescribes one-size-fits-all federal mandates for fixing failing schools.  It’s led states to narrow curriculum to focus more on teaching to the test and less on teaching everything else student need to know, and to lower standards to make them easier to meet

The Obama administration has worked extensively with Congress to re-write the law, and even submitted its own blueprint for education reform in March 2010, but legislators have not moved forward.

What are waivers and what do they have to do with No Child Left Behind?

Waivers provide an opportunity to fix what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind without waiting any longer for Congress to Act. States receiving waivers are given flexibility that exempts them from meeting the law’s most troublesome and restrictive requirements in exchange for setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success.

For example, waivers will give states the flexibility to:

  • Set their own ambitious but achievable terms for closing achievement gaps and ensuring students are proficient in reading and math, instead of meeting the NCLB timeline that requires 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Kentucky, for example, has set a goal to cut the number of underperforming students in half over the next five years.
  • Design their own strategies to improve their lowest-performing schools and measure student progress year over year, instead of relying on absolute numbers and a federally prescribed, “one size fits all” approach. Colorado, for example, another state receiving a waiver, is launching a website that will allow teachers and parents can see exactly how much progress students are making, and how different schools measure up.

Why do states need flexibility?

States need the flexibility to move forward with innovative education reforms they design themselves  —rather than a federal mandate—without sacrificing high standards or lowering accountability. After all, what works for Kentucky doesn’t necessarily work for New Jersey, and the parents and educators who live and work in each place are best-positioned to know the needs of their own communities.

There is still no clear bipartisan path in Congress for ESEA reauthorization – and we can’t wait any longer.  Schools and districts continue their daily work of educating students, while also planning for next school year, and states need this flexibility now to implement plans for reform and improvement.  Today’s announcement continues a process the President announced last September.

The fact is, most states are already pursuing reforms that go above and beyond the requirements in No Child Left Behind, and waivers will help them continue that progress. More than 40 states have adopted common standards that define what it means to be college and career ready, just as many have designed assessments to measure student progress toward achieving those standards. States have reformed teacher and principal evaluations to better determine which ones are effective and which ones aren’t, and developed support systems to help the less effective ones improve.

How did these states qualify for waivers?

President Obama offered every state a deal: If you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards based on a clear goal that every student can graduate ready for college or a career, we’ll give you the flexibility to meet those standards.

In addition to setting new performance targets for student achievement, states had to prove that they were serious by developing a plan addressing three critical areas:

  • Preparing students for college and careers: States must have already adopted college- and career-ready standards in reading and math that raise the achievement of all students, including English language Learners and students with disabilities. Additionally, states must create a plan to help schools and districts implement those standards and administer statewide tests to measure progress.
  • Hold schools accountable for making progress: States must establish an accountability system that recognizes and rewards both high-performing schools as well as those that are making significant gains in improving student achievement.And they must develop targeted strategies to turn around the lowest performing schools and help groups of students with the greatest needs.
  •  Improving teacher and principal effectiveness: States must set guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems, developed with input from educators and principals. Evaluation systems should assess performance using factors beyond test scores—such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback—and provide teachers with both constructive advice for improving and support in doing so.

 What’s next?

Just as the administration worked extensively with Congress to try re-write No Child Left Behind before announcing last September that it would offer states flexibility waivers, President Obama will continue to call on Congress to reform the law while offering states that are willing to set higher standards for their students the chance to do so.

In fact, in addition to the 10 states that requested the flexibility to implement reforms through this initial round of waivers, an 11th application is still being revised and reviewed, and 28 other states along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have also expressed interest in receiving waivers.

As President Obama explained this afternoon, “if we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”


Remarks by the President on No Child Left Behind Flexibility

President Barack Obama announces that 10 states that have agreed to implement bold education reforms will receive waivers from No Child Left Behind.

President Obama discusses No Child Left Behind
President Barack Obama delivers remarks on education reform, White House Photo, Lawrence Jackson, 2/9/12
East Room

1:57 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Please have a seat, have a seat.  Thank you so much.  Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to the White House.

I want to start by thanking all the chief state school officers who have made the trip from all over the country.  Why don’t you all stand up just so we can see you all, right here.  (Applause.)  It’s a great group, right here.  Thank you.  And I want to recognize someone who is doing a pretty good job right here in Washington, D.C., and that is my Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Love Arne.  (Applause.)

We’ve also got some outstanding members of Congress who are here who have always been on the front lines when it comes to education reform.  But above all, I want to thank all the teachers who are here today.  Where are the teachers?  Come on, stand up, teachers.  (Applause.)  There you go.  We got some teachers here.

Earlier this week, we hosted our second White House science fair.  Some of you may have seen this on TV.  I got a chance to shoot a marshmallow out of an air cannon, which I don’t usually get to do.  (Laughter.)  But I met these incredibly talented young people — kids who are working on everything from portable housing for disaster victims to technology that can detect smuggled uranium before it became a threat; this young man had built a prototype.  And I asked him how he came up with this idea, and he said, “I’ve always just been really interested in nuclear materials, and I collect samples.”  (Laughter.)  And I asked him, “How does your mom feel about this?”  (Laughter.)  He said she wasn’t that happy about it.

But just unbelievable young people.  It was extraordinary.  And before they left, I gave them some homework.  I told them go find a teacher who helped them make it here and say thank you, because every single one of us can point to a teacher who in some way changed the course of our lives.  I certainly can; I know Arne can.  And the impact is often much bigger than we realize.

One study found that a single good teacher can increase the lifetime earnings of a classroom by $250,000 — single teacher.  A great teacher can help a young person escape poverty, allow them to dream beyond their circumstances.

So teachers matter.  And in an economy where employers are looking for the most skilled, educated workers, few people are going to have a bigger impact on that than the men and women who are in our classrooms.  And that ultimately is why we’re here today.  It’s about our classrooms, and our children, and what’s happening to them and how they can perform.

In September, after waiting far too long for Congress to act, I announced that my administration would take steps to reform No Child Left Behind on our own.  This was one of the first and the biggest “We Can’t Wait” announcements that we’ve made, because our kids and our schools can’t be held back by inaction.

I want to point out, by the way, the members of Congress who are here, they’re ready to act, but we haven’t been able to get the entire House and Senate to move on this.

I said back then the goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones.  Standards and accountability — those are the right goals.  Closing the achievement gap, that’s a good goal.  That’s the right goal.  We’ve got to stay focused on those goals.  But we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures.  That doesn’t help anybody.  It certainly doesn’t help our children in the classroom.

So we determined we need a different approach.  And I’ve always believed that each of us has a role to play when it comes to our children’s education.  As parents, we’ve got a responsibility to make sure homework gets done, but also to instill a love of learning from the very start.  As a nation, we’ve got a responsibility to give our students the resources they need — from the highest-quality schools to the latest textbooks to science labs that actually work.

In return, we should demand better performance.  We should demand reform.  And that was the idea behind Race to the Top.  For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve gotten almost every state in the nation to raise their standards for teaching and learning.  And that’s the first time that’s happened in a generation.

So when it comes to fixing what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind, we’ve offered every state the same deal.  We’ve said, if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards.  We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return.  We combine greater freedom with greater accountability.  Because what might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky — but every student should have the same opportunity to reach their potential.

So over the last five months, 39 states have told us that they were interested.  Some have already applied.  And today, I am pleased to announce that we are giving 10 states, the first 10 states the green light to continue making the reforms that are best for them.

Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement.  They’ve come up with ways to evaluate and support teachers fairly, based on more than just a set of test scores.  And along with promoting best practices for all of our children, they’re also going to be focusing on low-income students, and English language learners, and students with disabilities — not just to make sure that those children don’t fall through the cracks, but to make sure they have every opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them.

So Massachusetts, for example, has set a goal to cut the number of underperforming students in half over the next six years.  I like that goal.

Colorado has launched a website that will allow teachers and parents to see exactly how much progress students are making, and how different schools are measuring up.  So nothing creates more accountability than when parents are out there taking a look and seeing what’s going on.

New Jersey is developing an early warning system to reduce the number of dropouts.  Tennessee is creating a statewide school district to aggressively tackle its lowest-performing schools.  And Florida has set a goal to have their test scores rank among the top five states in the country, and the top 10 countries in the world.  I like that ambition.

This is good news for our kids; it’s good news for our country.  And I’m confident that we’re going to see even more states come forward in the months ahead.  Because if we’re serious about helping our children reach their full potential, the best ideas aren’t going to just come from here in Washington.  They’re going to come from cities and towns from all across America.  They’re going to come from teachers and principals and parents.  They’re going to come from you who have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

And our job is to harness those ideas, to lift up best practices, to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.  That’s how we’re going to make sure that every child in America has the skills and the education they need to compete for the jobs of the future and to be great citizens.  And that’s how we’re going to build an economy that lasts.

So to all the educators who are in the room, thank you for what you do every day.  We are very proud of your efforts.  We know it’s not easy.  We’re proud of you.  And working together, I am absolutely confident that year after year we’re going to see steady improvement.

I told the superintendents that I met backstage before I came out here, this is not a one-year project.  This isn’t a two-year project.  This is going to take some time.  But we can get it done with the kind of determination and the kind of commitment that so many of you have shown.

So I’m proud of you.  I’m proud of Arne Duncan.  Let’s make this happen.

Thank you very much, everybody.

2:07 P.M. EST

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