Understanding How Education Has Changed for You Under the Obama Administration

Educational policy is anything but static in the U.S. Over the past few years, education has seen major overhauls per direction of the United States government itself.

The Obama Administration called for several reforms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush-era education policy. The administration cited the inability of the policy to make progress in increasing student achievement. However, under the Obama Administration, test-based school accountability, which began with No Child Left Behind, has continued. As a result, standardized testing in reading and math in grades 3–8 is required for states to obtain federal Title I funding. The efforts are hampered by a lack of consistency between states on state-generated standards, which serve as the basis for assessments, and the levels of student performance that represent proficiency on those assessments.

The Obama Administration is maintaining a primary premise of NCLB—that of closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students, while increasing overall standards of performance for all students. In support of this goal, the administration has voiced strong support for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a consistent set of curriculum standards in mathematics and English language arts, by encouraging states to adopt the standards. The administration, through award of Race to the Top funds, also supports the work of the 31-member-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). This consortium works to develop student assessments, aligned with the CCSS.

Whether or not the federal government has the authority to mandate adoption of what is tantamount to national standards (and subsequently adoption of common assessments for those standards) is debatable. But to date, 43 states have adopted the CCSS on their own. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) created the CCSS. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly give such power to the federal government, and it could be construed that this agenda represents an encroachment by the federal authority on the jurisdiction of local and state governments. This trend is not new but has been occurring for decades, facilitated by the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perhaps the largest catalyst to K–12 education reform in the 21st century has been the effort to close the achievement gap between White and minority students. NCLB has been the most visible representation of this push, with math, science, and reading initiatives that target at-risk students in formative years. All aspects of K–12 learning have been affected by NCLB as schools are forced to perform well on standardized tests or face harsh sanctions or even closure.

While the outline of NCLB is specific to early childhood and elementary-age children, the High School Reform Initiative seeks to achieve similar goals in the higher grades. A study that focused on high school graduation rates found that roughly half of students in urban areas graduate with a high school diploma. Clearly, any strides that are being made in the younger grades are falling by the wayside before high school, and so educators now face the task of keeping achievement strong after NCLB oversight ends. Some of the efforts of high school reform include identifying students with academic deficiencies and improving learning environments.

The Obama Administration has outlined several K–12 educational reform initiatives since taking office in 2008. Together, these reforms are intended to give each child a comprehensive education that will allow them to compete in a globalized economy. At the top of the list is reforming NCLB by providing more flexibility in interpretation. In the Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Obama Administration outlines plans to close achievement gaps in a less regimented fashion. Also on the list of K–12 educational reform is keeping teachers in classrooms through funding measures signed into law or as part of other legislation like the American Jobs Act and $30 billion dedicated to modernizing schools through repairs and upgrades in infrastructure.

As an educator, it’s important to keep up with current events and policy changes. The decisions made about American schooling by the U.S. government impact your future as an educator. In order to each most effectively, make sure you know what’s happened in your field – and what’s on the horizon.

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